Paul Newman stars as the loner who will not conform to the arbitrary, oppressive rules of his prison captivity. As the film opens, Luke is using a pipe cutter to cut the tops off of parking meters. He is drinking, but not violent. When the police arrive, he is arrested. He is tried, and sentenced to two years in prison.
There is no dream of victory or success, any moral mission or revenge, but detached indifference, and a life lived on his terms. Co-author Donn Pearce spent two years on a chain gang, and the result is a grim, unflinching portrayal of `man’s inhumanity to man’.
On the chain gang, Luke encourages the other prisoners, by his own attitude and energy, to excel at their menial tasks. This builds camaraderie among the prisoners. They are forced to shovel sand over a freshly tarred road, and perform the job with zeal and a sense of competition, and complete the job early, to the amazement of the guards. This is a high point in the story.
George Kennedy (as Dragline) heads the cast of fellow prisoners who express the full range of human emotion at Luke and his actions; pity, contempt, fear, disgust, but also as the story unfolds, outright admiration, hero worship, genuine comradeship and sympathy.
In my view, the success of the story lies in the effect Luke has on his fellow prisoners. Champion is just the role he does not want, he screams at them `you’re all feeding off me!’
In a confined world where normal human values were conspicuously absent, Luke stands as a contrast, but in a mirror of the world today, does not stand for anything in a sense. At his third escape attempt, when he and we, his audience, knew he would die, he repeats the captains earlier words. `What we’ve got here is.. a failure to communicate!’
The nihilistic message of this film is compelling. In its conclusion we see and hear Luke, sheltering in a church, shouting at God for the seeming indifference to his, and by extension, mankinds, woes. Because, for me at least, this vital question raised is the often asked `why do bad things happen to good people?’ I was reminded of how a number of individuals directly involved in the events of the Nazi holocaust have written with a spirit of the same tenacity as Luke, (such as Max Liebster in Crucible of Terror: A Story of Survival Through the Nazi Storm ) but with a clear understanding of what they were challenging and why. This is the reason hope is so important to us, although seemingly absent for Luke. A quote from the `Shawshank Redemption’, another prison film that deals with these issues, `You have got to have hope, without it, life is pointless’.
A film to make you think, it deserves true classic status, a tribute to the late Paul Newman.