When Nothin' Can Be a Real Cool Hand: The Use of Projection in COOL HAND LUKE

(Originally written in 2011) If you haven't read my previous posts Imagining the Real or Fooling Them All: The Use of Projection in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, please do so before proceeding. This essay is an extension of both of those pieces. 

It's difficult to ignore the inherent existentialism in Stuart Rosenberg's 1967 classic, Cool Hand Luke. Luke confronts God twice in the movie. The first time is during a thunder storm when everyone is running back into the trucks, afraid of the lightening. Luke stands in the middle of the road, shouting into the sky in defiance: "Love me, hate me, kill me, just let me know you're up there!" When nothing happens, Luke smirks as if he expected as much. At the end of the film when Luke enters a church, the place where he is shot and killed no less, he kneels down and prays:
If you can spare a minute, it’s about time we had a little talk. I know I’m a pretty evil fellow. Killed people in the war. I got drunk and chewed up municipal property and the like. I know I have no right to ask, but you’ve got to admit you haven’t dealt me no cards in a long time.
Luke has both eyes closed while he is praying and when nothing happens, he opens one eye and looks up. When he is met with silence, he shrugs it off and chuckles: "I guess you're a hard case too."  Within the context of the prison, there are rules of wrong and right enforced by the warden, and more specifically, by "the man with no eyes." However, these rules are arbitrary, set into place by the whim of the warden.  In an attempt to assert his power, the warden has Luke dig a hole, and when he finishes digging it, the warden has him fill it back up. When Luke fills it back up, the warden then tells him to dig it again.  

Within this absence of meaning, Luke and the other inmates have to arbitrarily determine what they should and shouldn't do with their free time. When Dragline asks Luke about the egg eating contest, Luke says, It's just something to do. And, when Dragline asks Luke why he said 50 and not 35 or 40 or some other number, Luke says it just seemed like a good round number. Without an absolute sense of meaning or purpose, the inmates are left to their own devices. Luke is the only one capable of exacting his will into this absence and the other inmates not only depend upon him for their own meaning, they become angry and helpless when he fails to provide it.

When thinking about Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest alongside Cool Hand Luke, it’s uncanny how similar the two plot lines are: in both films an outsider enters an institutionalized environment and quickly becomes the leader of a band of misfits who are mesmerized by his personality and charisma.  After invigorating the group (and perhaps because of it) this outsider is beaten down and destroyed, only to be reborn within the imaginations of those who followed him.  

Luke and McMurphy also become the perfect heroic projection.  Luke as a projection begins when he fights Dragline, the biggest inmate of the group, and even though he is beaten senseless, Luke doesn't quit, gaining him the sympathy and respect of the group. This projection is solidified when Luke says he can eat 50 eggs and actually does! The projection is complete when Luke escapes and sends a picture back to the inmates showing him wearing a suit and sitting next to two beautiful women.

Both Luke and McMurphy act as projections; however, with Luke there is an interesting twist. While Forman's One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest elevates the notion of projection, Rosenberg, on the other hand, attempts to deconstruct or critique it. When Luke tells them the picture with the two beautiful women is a fake, and that he actually paid for it to be made, they are astounded and don't believe him.  When Luke is finally beaten down by the warden, after a 2nd failed attempt to escape, they abandon him altogether. One prisoner even tears up the photo of Luke and the two women, the very symbol of Luke as a projection.  

Both Luke in Cool Hand Luke and McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest die, and, likewise, both are reborn. They are not reborn in the same way though, or at least not with the same implications. In the closing scenes of Cuckoo’s Nest, when Chief throws the sink through the window, the inmates of the asylum obviously think it's McMurphy breaking free, the way he said he would.  Notice the difference with the last scene of Cool Hand Luke. Again, on the surface, the films are similar. Like McMurphy, Luke also lives on as a hero. Dragline says Luke was "smiling" as they drove him away, leading into a montage sequence as the inmates, and we as viewers, can reminisce about Luke as our hero.  Rosenberg doesn't end there though. The final scene of the film returns to the photo of Luke and the two women.  Luke has become a hero again, however the photo is now shown as torn and taped back together. Luke may be a projection, but Rosenberg wants us to know just how fragile this status is, and, like the picture itself, perhaps false altogether.