Celebrating its 50th anniversary today is the 1967 Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke. Set in the early 1950s, Newman plays Luke Jackson, a low-level criminal who’s as cocky as they come, even after he’s arrested and sent to prison, sentenced to work in a forced labor camp. The overseers there, including Captain (Strother Martin) and his lieutenants, do everything they can to break Luke’s spirit but he continues to defy them. Through repeated demonstrations of spirit and attempts at escape he earns the respect of his fellow prisoners but the disdain of the guards and others managing the camp.
“The man…and the motion picture that simply do not conform.” is the copy that graces the top of the theatrical poster, setting up Luke as a rebel, something that surely resonated with certain audiences in 1967. Newman’s name appears just above an image of his face radiating out waves that could be indicative of the extreme heat he’s forced to work in or just the searing nature of his personality. Or both. Luke’s imprisonment is communicated through small drawings of him in leg irons, a group of men following dogs tracking someone’s scent and a man looking down at someone unseen with a rifle in his hand.
It’s easy to see how the poster plays into the persona of Newman as both the traditional leading man and the restless rebel, something cemented in previous roles. He won’t be twisted by the system but stays true to who he is. Warner Bros. wants that persona to be applied to the movie itself as well, which is why the copy at the top is framed as it is.
We see the circumstances of Luke’s arrest as the trailer opens, with the repeated appearance of “Violation” not only showing that he’s stealing parking meters but signaling that he’s just a bad dude. Cut to him in prison, being lectured by Captain that he’s going to get used to being in irons. Luke’s defiant spirit is the dominant theme of the rest of the trailer as he mocks Captain, tries to escape and otherwise does what he can to stay sane and refuse to back down no matter the circumstances.
There’s not a whole of story on display in the trailer. Instead it’s all about attitude, specifically Luke’s unbreakable attitude and rebellious perspective on all things. As the poster states, he won’t conform and won’t behave as expected because it’s just not in his nature. He’s going to continue pushing the buttons of authority and doing as he likes, regardless of the consequences.
You can see how the campaign as a whole leaned into a counter-culture message that surely was timely and impactful among moviegoers in the last 1960s. Luke is an outsider who won’t conform, a message and feeling that was pervasive in the culture at that time. While the story is set 10+ years earlier, the appeal made to the audience was very much of the moment.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.