For a variety of reasons, existentialism became one of the prevailing philosophies of mid-Twentieth century. It is a philosophical view with fuzzy edges, as writers as varied as Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus bring differing perspectives to the equation. Nevertheless, at its core there are several common defining features: a sense of personal alienation, that our life situation is absurd, and the sense of calling to live authentically.
One definition refers to modern man's situation as "a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world."
Merriam-Webster offers this definition: "A chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad."
When Cool Hand Luke was released in 1967, Existentialism was a prevailing wind on college campuses and in popular culture. Hence, the film demonstrates, without preaching, the fundamental essence of this worldview.
Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is a combination existential hero/anti-hero and Christ-figure in this film. As the opening credits roll we see a drunken Luke cutting the tops off of parking meters in the middle of the night, not to rob them but simply out of his sense of boredom, or for whatever meaningless reason. The rest of the film is about his time in prison. Luke has one quest here, to escape this meaningless existence. I see the overall film as a metaphor for Sartre's No Exit or Camus's The Stranger.
Like all good stories the film is a sequence of scenes which serve to define Luke's character for the viewer. His "never give up" attitude is demonstrated early in his fight with Dragline (George Kennedy). And though his "achievements" win the admiration of his bunkmates or "co-workers" in this hard labor camp, he is non-plussed about all of it, as A. Hardt points out in this 2011 forum discussion:
Through my multiple viewings of Cool Hand Luke, my analysis of the message of the film has switched back and forth between an existentialist one, and one of determinism. The existentialist references are the most common within the film; Luke is constantly discrediting the meaning in his actions. After Captain lists Luke’s significant war achievements, Luke responds by saying, “I was just passing time.” Also, when Dragline consults Luke about the 50 eggs in an hour bet, Luke says about the extremely difficult task, “Yeah well, it would be something to do.” From these and other examples, it seems that Luke has come to believe that his life is inherently meaningless, and in order to create meaning, he must give himself seemingly impossible tasks to complete to the amazement of those watching. When the chain gang is ordered to pave an entire road in one day, Luke recognizes the meaninglessness of this menial task, and by doing so he is able to accept it and even make the task into a game for the other workers, thereby achieving a sort of satisfaction.
|Final showdown at the film's end.|
Though at first he was just another prisoner, his escapades serve to help give meaning and hope to his fellow prisoners, even if they seemingly mean nothing to him. In the end, like Jesus, he is abandoned by God (Matthew 27:46) and betrayed by a friend.
Peering through the existential lens we note that Luke is a non-conformist who is authentically himself. He is not like the others who, though discontent, accept their boundaries, their circumstances. Luke is a man of action, not resignation. Tragically his aspiration is impossible to achieve yet he pursues it till the end, hence his final despair.
There are plenty of great moments in this film. If you haven't seen it in a while, it may be time to re-visit this memorable classic.