Against Authority: Rebellion and Religious Allegory in Cool Hand Luke

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Paul Newman's eponymous character in 'Cool Hand Luke' (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967) is one of the most iconic in cinema, his radiant smile testifying to his ability to endure almost-inhuman hardship with good humour and grace. Newman's Luke Jackson is an alienated young man who chafes against the authoritarian impulses of his institutional overseers after a seemingly innocuous act of property damage sees him sentenced to hard labour in the American South. Released at a moment of sociocultural turmoil in the United States, the film uses its ambiguous historical setting to comment on the politics of the day. Its central themes of institutionalisation, dehumanisation, authoritarianism and the nobility of self-sacrifice take on heightened significance in the surrounding historical context of the Vietnam War, the African-American civil rights movement and US counterculture. The film evokes these themes indirectly, relating them to earlier traditions by invoking a range of biblical images. 'Cool Hand Luke' is also an industrially significant film, incorporating many of the stylistic and thematic hallmarks that, following the success of 'The Graduate' (Mike Nichols) and 'Bonnie and Clyde' (Arthur Penn) in the same year, would soon be codified in the youth-centric films of the New Hollywood era.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)116-121
Number of pages6
JournalScreen Education
Issue number91
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


  • Motion pictures--Evaluation
  • Themes, motives
  • Motion pictures--Social aspects


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