Biblical Audio Commentary – Cool Hand Luke – A Parable of Modern Man
If there was ever a movie depicting the philosophy of modern man, it’s Cool Hand Luke. Luke, played by Paul Newman, is a small-town drifter who has no purpose in life. He comes home from the war (WW2) and sometime thereafter is arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. His crime? Drinking heavily and cutting the heads off parking meters. Hilarious, but pathetic. For that he’s sentenced to two years in prison in what is actually a deep South (probably Georgia) chain gang. The prisoners go out on the roads each day and do heavy work like brush cutting, while under intense scrutiny from the armed guards.
Luke is the quintessential rebel without a cause. He never gives up but has no inherent reason for that other than his absolute stubbornness, which keeps him fighting against anything that comes his way. He ends up antagonizing Dragline, played by George Kennedy, who is the unspoken leader of the prisoners. In a subsequent fistfight, Luke just keeps coming at Dragline well after he’s been thoroughly beaten. But he gets up for more and takes a beating that doesn’t end until Dragline can’t stand himself for continuing to pound on his hapless victim. That indominable spirit wins Dragline over to Luke. From that point on Luke is admired and idolized by all the prisoners, becoming their new, de facto leader.
Luke never sets out to become superman in the eyes of the men around him, but in effect that’s how they see him. He escapes with everyone cheering him. The system is efficient, however, and he’s captured. He escapes again and once more is brought back. What he realizes at this time is that the prisoners are feeding off of him. They get their only hope in life vicariously through Luke’s exploits. This time after being captured, the punishment against him in the prison is extreme. In fact, it’s so grueling that they break him.
Luke grovels at their feet and becomes a toady to them, acquiescing to every whim of the guards. He gets his “mind right” and is a model prisoner. Yet what does this do to the men around him? They’re ashamed and can’t even stand to look at Luke for what he’s become. He was always the one to stand against the system – against “the Man.” Yet now he’s broken. The idol the prisoners looked toward for hope has been cast down.
As it turns out, the trust the guards placed in Luke’s downfall is misplaced. He was broken, but never truly gave up his rebellious streak. At the height of the conviction by the guards that he is forever under their thumb, Luke pulls a fast one and escapes the third time in such a way that he can’t be immediately followed. Dragline is so enthused and caught up in this double-cross by Luke that he comes with him in the stolen truck.
The prisoners seeing Luke effectively rise like the Phoenix from the ashes are encouraged and thrilled. Their hero has once more stuck it to their overlords in the prison system.
Of course, it doesn’t end well for Luke. He finds himself near an old church at night and enters. There he tries to have a talk with God. Like so many who have run from Him their entire lives, he has no idea how to approach the conversation or even how to pray. When he gets no immediate response, it’s what he figured in the first place. Is there even a God in heaven? Well, He certainly doesn’t care for me.
The movie ends as it must with Luke’s demise – shot in the church. Dragline is reinstated in the chain gang, and the prisoners all recall Luke with great reverence. He was their god and their great hope. They recall him and all his rebel activities, and through that lens can look forward to a time when they might exhibit the courage to live outside of the constraints of the system that is impossible to beat.
This was probably the third time I saw Cool Hand Luke. Interestingly my wife and I both came away from it with a deep sense of the hopelessness portrayed in the movie. Luke’s will to live and win was incredible, but he had no purpose and could do nothing with it. He’d always been far from God doing what he wanted. Is it any wonder then that the nihilism of Nietzsche was the central theme of his life? What comes next? Nothing. An end to existence. Luke lived the useless life he did, basically encouraged others to likewise exist, then perished.
Just as the Bible describes, the man who doesn’t know God, who rejects Him, is a fool destined for the grave. Will anyone remember him after a couple years? No, because there’s nothing admirable or enduring about his life.
Is this story not a portrait of mankind in the world today? It has taken centuries of humanist thought to rid men of the desire or need for God; rather, to implant the idea that man is self-sufficient to his own end. He walks in darkness, lives for himself in whatever pleases him – whether it’s a dissolute life of drinking and drugs, or one of acquiring toys and pleasures in living for the moment.
How many verses could we quote that describe the secular man who is far from his Maker? Here is Proverbs 4:19:
The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know over what they stumble.
Here is Psalm 5:9-10:
For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.
We could go on and on as to how Scripture depicts the utter foolishness of man going his own way. It indeed is the broad path of destruction.
Our only hope in this world is in Jesus Christ. The sad reality is that those in Hollywood who depict such a sad and pathetic character as Luke, and those in the real world who are no different – they have offered up their lives on the altar of a false god, whether it’s oneself or that which the god of this world has uselessly promised as a reward.
Can some of these be saved? Perhaps a few. But the window is closing. Rebellion against God and the overriding deceit that arises from that are the main themes in today’s world. Incredibly, this dark realty will grow worse. It all leads to the Tribulation where God finally deals with all the unbelievers who have chosen their own path over that which God designed for their good.
Yes, it’s an incredibly depressing prospect. Thankfully, we have the greatest of optimism for what is in store for us who believe in Jesus. By keeping our eyes on Him, that will enable us to make it through until that glorious day that he brings us home.