Before Donn Pearce published his 1965 novel Cool Hand Luke, he’d reportedly spent six years drafting it as he pieced together a dramatic tale crafted from his imagination, his experience in a prison camp working on a chain gang, and the stories his fellow inmates shared. This would give the film of the same name, directed by Stuart Rosenberg (The Amityville Horror) and adapted by Pearce and Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon), a striking authenticity that makes the film as compelling in its original 1967 release as it is now with a first-time 4K UHD with High Dynamic Range restoration, coming from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment April 4th, 2023.
After damaging municipal property, Luke (Paul Newman) finds himself sentenced to two years on a chain gang run by a man the inmates and officers call Captain (Strother Martin) and whose roadside work is overseen by a silent individual the inmates call “The Man Who No Eyes” (Morgan Woodward). Though it takes time for Luke and the rest of the inmates to warm to each other, a camaraderie forms that not only makes the work time easier but the downtime, too. But when a tragedy befalls Luke’s family, the man is spurred toward freedom, setting himself on a path of action that places him in conflict with the officers who run the prison camp, threatening to do more than upset the power balance in the process.
“The illusion that kills.”
This is the text at the top of an ad next to the photo Luke tucked inside a magazine that he sent fellow inmate Dragline (George Kennedy) to let him know that he got further in his escape. We don’t know how much time has passed since this escape attempt nor how much follows after the mail is delivered that Luke, too, is returned to camp with a few more bruises and a little more in dispirit. “The illusion that kills” it says, an interested adage that strikes the mind as prescient not just because Luke tells his friends that the image was a farce he paid for, but how the concept itself grips the soul of humanity. Illusions kills us far more easily than facts do, perhaps why what seems to get Luke into as much trouble as he does is merely because, as he is prone to say, it’s something to do. The illusion of real life is that we’re free when we’re just part of a system with its own gatekeepers and controllers. Doesn’t matter whether you earned a Purple Star in World War II or you removed the heads of several parking meters, you go to the chain gang. Pass a few bad checks? Chain gang. Get caught in the rain and end up trespassing to get somewhere dry? Chain gang. Far as the audience is concerned, none of the inmates did anything truly horrible and yet they are reduced to working the road under intense heat (the book takes place in Florida, though the location isn’t made as clear in the film) with little for protection, less-than-ideal nutrition, and a multitude of rules for which any infraction is to go into a small hot box with two buckets for overnight or longer. Their regiment is strict, though it does allow for cold beverages (somehow?) and boxing between inmates on Saturdays only (because sure). Their life is extraordinarily restrictive and yet, strangely freeing, as long as they stay within the rules, as evidenced by the relationships Luke seems to form with the inmates and guards as a result of his general charm and charisma. And yet, outside of the prison camp, these men were subject to rules, too. Rules conceived via social construct or ratified into law, but rules nonetheless. The following of said rules offers the illusion of freedom dressed as social responsibility, a slightly chilling thought as social responsibility is often the very thing that holds all of humanity together. Therefore, a read of Cool Hand Luke forms wherein the narrative seems to imply that if we accept our lives as part of a system, we’ll be ok, but if we rebel against it, we’ll meet our ends far sooner and much more cruelly. Given the general light-hearted nature of the film as a whole (Luke is no Shawshank (1994) or Last Castle (2001)), it’s a dour ending to character-driven dramedy. Between the thoughtfulness of the narrative and both Newman’s and Kennedy’s performances (for which the latter won an Oscar), one can see why the film is as beloved as it is 56 years later.
Before moving onto the restoration proper, as with the 4K UHD restorations of The Maltese Falcon and Rebel Without a Cause, no information is offered within either the press release announcement or with the retail copy provided for review by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment that offers any sense of what materials were used to create the restoration, who oversaw the restoration, or who approved it.
In my view, a solid restoration should remove visible wear and tear, perhaps a bit of the age of the film, all without changing the feel of it. Cool Hand Luke is a prime example of this as the HDR does a great job of reducing the burnt orange skin of the inmates, giving their tans a more natural glow-like look and giving the grass surrounding the camp a touch more vibrancy. Likewise, in the few transitional shots where the audience is shown the setting sun as sort of blood-red in the sky, the color is richer and more vibrant without the menace. Later, during the sequence at the end of the film wherein Dragline and Luke chat in the dark appears under-lit on the included Blu-ray, but it easy to see within the confines of the natural light with the HDR. Overall, there appears to be a reduction of visible grain from Blu-ray to 4K UHD, a reduction of general haze to each frame, and more natural colors throughout. This restoration maintains everything that makes Cool Hand Luke feel anchored within the period it was made and in which the story is set while improving in appearance.
Before you make for the nearest river or roadway, be advised that this restoration does include only previously available bonus features. However, unlike the other two restorations, the bonus features for Luke are a tad more evenly disbursed. What this means is that what is included, while previously available with other home release iterations, is available on both the individual 4K UHD and Blu-ray discs. So if you want to enjoy the commentary track from historian and Newman biographer Eric Lax, you can do so with either the restoration or included Blu-ray. Same with the previously available “A Natural-Born World Shaker” featurette. Ordinarily the bonus features aren’t as evenly distributed on the 4K disc, so this is a nice touch to go along with a pleasantly surprising restoration.
Outside of the famous “failure to communicate” line uttered by Martin’s Captain, I knew nothing about the film going in and was pleasantly surprised at its charm, whit, and general pluck. Color me shocked when it turns on its ear, relinquishing all the softness the film develops through the constantly-cool Luke, developing into an exploration of personal autonomy and the desire to break free of a constant string of mistakes. For all of its darkness toward the end, it ends up being oddly profound and a reminder that Newman was an absolute star on screen, effortless in just about everything, uninterested in being the best looking thing on screen, but how best to serve his character and the story. Luke’s one cool dude made so through a film that challenges the audience to consider their apathy.
Cool Hand Luke Special Features:
- Commentary by Eric Lax
- “A Natural-Born World-Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke” (featurette)
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo and digital April 4th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Warner Bros. Pictures Cool Hand Luke webpage.