• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, September 26, 2006

    The Christ Figure of Cool Hand Luke

    Cool Hand Luke has been one of my very favourite films for a long time now. Whilst I appreciate that it isn't the most technically or artistically excellent film in the history of cinema, there's plenty of those things to admire and so somehow it's just found a special place in my heart.

    However, until last night, I'd never actually seen it in widescreen, or on DVD. I have to say it was an incredible experience - almost like watching it again for the first time. For a long time I was cynical of both the widescreen TV, and the DVD agenda and saw them as unnecessary ideas to milk money from a gullible public. Whilst I don't doubt that such reasons have accelerated the revolution (compare the time DVDs took to gain market dominance over VHS compared to the replacement of audio tapes with CDs), I have to say I have changed my mind. Watching Cool Hand Luke in widescreen converted what had been fairly unspectacular compositions into memorable ones, and the extra clarity of the DVD image gave fairly uninspiring images into objects of beauty. All of a sudden there was scene after scene of parallel lines tracking t-heir way to their vanishing point on the horizon, and arrays of single light bulbs contrasted against deeper, darker backgrounds.


    The film is particularly relevant to this blog inasmuch as it is the classic example of a "Christ-figure film". Messianic imagery is fairly common these days, whether it's in ET, Braveheart, The Matrix or Gladiator, but it was considerably rarer back in 1967, and this film has far more Christological richness than any of those modern films. Furthermore the film invites us to examine the parallels with two very specific shots which can only have been designed to draw comnparison. The first (shown above) is perhaps the most obvious, but the final shot also lays over the shot of the road where the chain gang continue with the torn, and now repaired, photo of Luke heralded by two "angels" (Dragline's words not mine) seemingly floating in the skies. Significantly, whilst we saw the photo being torn in unevenly several times, the tears on the final photo form a cross (i.e. a maximum of three tears in half).

    Most discussions of this film, however, read it a little simplistically. Rather than the film being a simple form of semi-allegory, it creates images and a story line which draw comparisons to the life of Jesus, but these comparisons fall in a non-linear, and sometimes multiple way. Consider for example the end of the lives of Jesus and Luke. In the gospels, Jesus is i- betrayed, ii- arrested, iii-tried, iv-beaten, v-walked to the point of execution, vi-killed, vii-buried, viii-resurrected, and finally ix-ascends whilst x-the church is born.

    Luke however is betrayed at least twice. Once during his first escape by a fellow inmate who decides at the last minute to try to escape, but does so in such a noisy fashion that he draws attention to Luke's escape. We see an overhead shot of this prisoner hanging onto a tall wooden fence post which evokes a comparison with Judas. However, this shot is often overlooked in favour of a comparison with Dragline who brings the authorities to Luke at the end of the film. The film invites that latter comparison as well, but it is too simplistic to say that Dragline=Judas. In most other places in the film, both before and after this betrayal, Dragline functions as Peter. Dragline's burly figure fits with the stereotypical (though extra-biblical) image of the big fisherman, he is the leader amongst the apostles both before his betrayal, and, significantly, after it, when he is shown testifying to the others what occurred that night (shown right). The film breaks with the logic of the film to show this moment - this location is over an hour's drive from the prison, and the chain-gang are neither working or eating when Dragline tells his story.

    In a similar way Luke's death is depicted twice. Obviously Luke's actual death occurs at the climax of the film. But the image of Luke lying flat on his back in grave-like hole is too obvious to ignore (see right). There are also several long via-dolosa style walks, Gethsemane-like questioning moments, and beatings - in retrospect, the early boxing match is very reminiscent of Gibson's later Passion of the Christ . We also see Luke give his great commission to Dragline (who is on his knees) before Dragline's betrayal: "I done enough world shaking for a while, you do the rest of it for me." This scene in itself functions as an ascension scene, Luke moves away from Dragline towards the sanctity of a church where he converses with his father. So too then, there are two ascensions. Hence the comparisons with the story of Jesus do not directly correspond, but criss-cross in numerous places. There are multiple depictions of certain scenes, whilst certain scenes in Luke's story have no points of comparison. Additionally, the characters in the film may map to a number of biblical characters or none.

    One other aspect that is hardly ever commented on is the music. The film's music is both diegetic (i.e. generated by action such as Luke playing his banjo) and Non-diegetic (i.e. laid on top of the film afterwards). The digetic music is particularly significant, and nearly all the songs played have a religious significance. When Luke's mother pays him a farewell visit him (before her illness finally kills her), Luke's return to the compound is accompanied by the Harry Dean Stanton character singing" Through the days of toil that's near, if I fall dear Lord who cares? Who but thee my burden shares? None but thee dear Lord, none but Thee". Later on, Luke vents his grief and anger by singing "Plastic Jesus". Even later Stanton's character's sings "Ain't no Grave gonna keep my body down...keep your mind on the above". All these add to the religious texture of the film.

    The best Christ figure films function in at least two ways. Firstly they act as a form of incarnation - bringing Jesus to the people in an everyday way that is far easier to relate to than the first century Jewish context he actually came in. Secondly they should also shed further light on the Jesus story, by inviting the viewer to look at it from a new angle. Cool Hand Luke is particularly successful in this regard. Partly because it throws out linear parallelism in favour of a much richer, multi-faceted approach, partly because the film's music underlines some of these comparisons, and also shines light on the story, and partly because it's central character is able to interact with God. Luke's conversational prayers have two layers of meaning both taken with the obvious and intended sarcasm, but also when taken at face value they enhance the spiritual resonances within the film.

    Click on Images to see a larger version

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    6 Comments:

    • At 3:03 pm, September 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Paul Erlandson here; I saw this posted at Arts & Faith. Thanks for a good essay.

      Believe it or not, I've actually had people argue with me, saying that there is nothing of the Christ figure in Cool Hand Luke!

      One of my favourite scenes is the sort of anti-Maundy Thursday (or anti-John 6) statement which Luke makes to his "disciples" when he admonishes them to Stop feed off me!. But even this exception (Luke, being merely human, cannot feed other men as Christ can and does) helps prove the case, for there is a certain beautiful (and, I believe, intentional) symmetry at work here.

      Thanks again for a good article!

       
    • At 11:36 am, October 06, 2006, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for you email and your kind comments and sorry I've taken so long to reply.

      I'd never thought about the "stop feeding off me" line in that way before.

      Thanks

      Matt

       
    • At 6:33 am, November 23, 2006, Blogger sammy said…

      nice post. i just watched "chl" for the first time in a while, and i can't believe i didn't see the imagery before (or, if i saw it, that i forgot it was there). i immediately googled "gospel according to cool hand luke" and your post is the best i've come across so far. thanks again.
      ~ sam

       
    • At 6:29 pm, November 13, 2007, Blogger Matt Page said…

      The full text of the prayer that Luke prays is reproduced by RC at Strange Culture.

      There are also some thoughts on this film by my friend Ron Reed.

      Matt

       
    • At 3:12 pm, August 12, 2014, Blogger Reel Popcorn Junkie said…

      Interesting to hear Ain't No Grave, considering it's one of the last songs Johnny Cash recorded before his death.

       
    • At 2:23 pm, April 14, 2016, Blogger Jason Paul Johnston said…

      Thanks for writing this - 10 years later, this article is still helpful. Using it in my Christ in Film class...

       

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