That Time Jesus Joined A Chain Gang
Updated: Sep 28, 2017
A look at the movie Cool Hand Luke and how it might just be the most Christian film ever made.
When people think of "Christian movies" I hear the mentions of Fireproof, God's Not Dead, and War Room. These types of films represent less than 1% of all movies made by Christians, yet it is the standard association to the genre.
Less thought of, are films like I Am Legend, The Seventh Seal, and Home Alone, each encountering moments and discussion of the divine. If you are questioning that last sentence, test me. Go back and rewatch those films looking at how it speaks to something deeper than the next plot point, and I think your eyes will be open to the transcendent imagery of Jesus and meaning that we will carry with us from the theater.
If you looked at the list above and appreciate stories that integrate salvation and redemption in a deeper way, then I think you should give Cool Hand Luke a watch, because it might just be the most Christian movie ever made (and I mean that in the best possible way).
“Less thought of, are films like I Am Legend, The Seventh Seal, and Home Alone, each encountering moments and discussion of the divine."
I first came across Cool Hand Luke at the age of 16. At that age, I was just beginning to more understand the value of movies made before I was born. During this season I watched the Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Birds by recommendation of my mom (she liked gangster movies and Hitchcock, so my palette started off a bit narrow).
It was late one July night. My parents and sister were going to bed, but I was on a summer schedule (go to bed at 1am, wake up at 11am). I was flipping through the channels and saw that a movie called Cool Hand Luke was coming on. As my mom passed by to say goodnight, she told me that this was my uncle's favorite film. Then she used the magic words that would have gotten me to stare at a candle burning for two hours: she said "it's a classic".
That was all it took. I began watching and began seeing similarities to my favorite film of all time, The Shawshank Redemption. It was 90 degrees the outside the night I watched the film, one of the hottest nights I can remember in north Georgia, very similar to the muggy, southern summer depicted in the film.
I watched the whole movie that night and I loved it, yet I didn't understand why. It was beautiful and moving and unlike any film I'd ever seen. Often times, I found myself saying, "Why would Luke do such a thing?" yet I was enthralled by him. He was different than every other prisoner there, yet I loved him and found myself wanting to be as cool as Cool Hand Luke, even though I didn't know why.
The film stuck with me for days, then weeks, then years. I added it to my list of top ten films ever made and even hung up the poster in my room. But what I didn't know was that I was just at the tip of the ice-burg to all the depth and meaning the movie held.
“But what I didn't know was that I was just at the tip of the ice-burg to all the depth and meaning the movie held."
I watched the film a few years later in undergrad and on this second viewing, it all came to me. Cool Hand Luke is Jesus Christ represented in film. Just as I questioned all of Luke's counter-cultural actions, so everyone else questions Jesus' actions. Mary poured a years wages worth of perfume on Jesus feet and he defended it. Yet when temple was selling sacraments in the name of God, Jesus flipped the table over in anger. When they asked him to pay taxes he could have responded, "No way, Caesar is evil" or "Yes, so you don't get in trouble", yet he claimed "Give unto Caesar what is Caesars".
As much as his miracles, Jesus drew people to him because he was different. He seemed to operate on a different plane, where money, power, and death held a different meaning. The same could be said about Cool Hand Luke and in the cases of both men, people flocked to them.
One of the most confusing parts of the film is the opening scene. Luke isn't thrown in prison. He is a war hero who drinks too much and takes all of the heads off of parking meters, which might be the least consequential felony possible. For a while I could not get that quesiton out of my head, "Why would Luke commit a pointless, harmless felony and be thrown in prison with those guys?". And after all these years, I don't know. I am not meant to know.
Why did Jesus come down among us, a group of murderers, thieves, and sinners? He was more than a decorated war hero, he was the creator of all. Sure, I know the church answer which is that Jesus came down because he loved us so much. He came to redeem us. I believe that still, but I don't know if I will ever understand it, and I'm not meant to.
If you want more proof that Luke represents Jesus, just look at the last image of Luke sprawled out on the table after eating 50 eggs. He lies there in a loin clothe with arms spread and his feet crossed, an almost identical image to Jesus’ crucifixion pose. It's also no coincidence that he ate 50 eggs. There were exactly 50 inmates in bondage with him and eggs often represent Easter, the very holiday celebrating Jesus.
Near the end is another powerful moment. After being forced to dig holes repeatedly, Luke breaks down and falls into the pit resembling a grave. From this moment until he runs away for the last time, his followers scatter, even making Luke yell out in exasperation “where are you now?”. When Jesus went into the grave, his disciples scattered also. The inmates thought Luke was going to fulfill something Luke knew he was not meant to fill. Luke seemed to simply equip and encourage the inmates to live their own lives and to quit “feeding of” him. Jesus pushed his followers do the same thing when he left the world.
Two other characters I have to talk about are Dragnet and Boss Keen. Dragnet was always quick to speak and was the loudest of all the inmates. The same could be said of the disciple Matthew. In the Bible. Matthew has more recorded lines than any other disciple. He constantly built up Jesus to expectations that he would not fulfill.
A shot at the end of the film may be the most representative of this comparison. After Luke has died, Dragnet sits with the other inmates talking about the life of Luke. He then points to a church sanctuary and tells about his last night with Luke. This lines up well because Matthew founded the church as a whole by telling stories from the life and resurrection of Christ.
Boss Keen represents Satan in the film. He never talks but wears large sunglasses that show the reflection of the inmates as they look into them. This silent stare makes Boss Keen seem invincible and intimidating. Every time one of the prisoners look into his eyes, they see the chains on themselves, reminding them of the bondage and guiltiness where they reside.
This was an almost identical state of humanity before Jesus. Any time people tried to address sin or evil, they were reminded by Satan of the fallen state they live in. Guiltiness and shame made it impossible to overcome Satan. Yet Jesus does not end Satan's worldly reign yet, but he does give us the power to overcome who Satan says we are.
In the same way, Luke does not end Boss Keen’s reign but instead gives Dragnet the strength to accomplish the task in his final moments. Dragnet crushes Boss Keen's glasses so there is not longer a constant reminder of our fallen state, which means the shame Satan most regularly uses, holds no reflection on us anymore.
I could go on, but I will let the above suffice. Go watch the movie for yourself. Let it speak to you, see what you hear. The levels of depth from this 1967 film is unparalleled. I'll end with one of the greatest moments of a film, a song that has no place in a perfect hymnal or correct theologian's lips, but holds more power and emotion than most. It's a common person's song of faith, pain, and hope... and Paul Newman kills it (in the best possible way):