“Hell, he’s a natural born world-shaker.”
New convict, Luke (Paul Newman) doesn’t take kindly to authority. He’s always trying to escape prison, after getting locked up for twisting the heads off parking meters. Luke gets bored easily, but his fellow inmates find Luke fascinating. Between openly mocking the guards and settling bets about hard-boiled eggs, Luke becomes an inspiration for the criminals locked up along with him.
Luke is a quiet guy. It’s hard to get to know him, but he is admired by his fellow cons because he can’t stay put for too long. He tries a lot of things out of sheer boredom, including the egg eating contest of biblical proportions. He doesn’t have a short fuse, nor does he preach to his fellow inmates. He even plays the banjo and appears to be remorseful about some of his choices.
Not a technical diagnosis, a “God complex” is a phrase used to describe someone that acts holier than thou. They are arrogant, narcissistic, and delusional. Many psychological disorders can carry such a complex, often those pesky personality disorders. Luke himself does not seem to have the characteristics of a so-called God complex, but Cool Hand Luke is rife with biblical imagery.
I never read the entire Bible (because I’m a heathen), but the imagery kind of whacks you on the head in this movie. It’s not the first film to touch on the martyrdom of prisoners, or to suggest that God lurks in those who have committed evil acts. If Luke is just a regular guy, then God might be in the underlying tone of his prison time because of how he sees things, or because of how we see Luke.
Christianity promises salvation to its followers. Luke was one of Jesus’ apostles, but there are other biblical references throughout the film. Luke’s prison number, 37, refers to a Bible passage; Luke talks to God during the course of the movie (or at least, that’s who he seems to be talking to); the prison guards are depicted as Satanic, with the leader of the pack called “The Man with No Eyes;” and the final shot of the movie is four converging roads in the shape of a cross with a photograph of Luke and two women overlapping the cross-roads.
Prison mentality is the epitome of souls seeking salvation. Whether this salvation is religious or otherwise, a movie about prison inmates makes sense as a platform for religious ideation. To have a film engender faith ideals in those that need to believe, to hope, and to maintain a sense of freedom is a unique idea, but one that translates well to the screen. While Luke may himself believe that he is a God-like figure, his behaviors do not align with a person that deludes themselves in this way; instead, the audience sees Luke this way, and so does the rest of his cohort. In a larger way, the film implies that how we see prisoners affects our own sense of empathy toward them, and toward the system that keeps them in chains.