Cool Hand Luke (1967) Screenplay Analysis


Cool Hand Luke (1967), written by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson disappoints me. Why? Because it’s one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read and even if I spent the rest of my life dedicated to studying screenwriting I doubt I would be able to write anything half as good. It’s truly that perfect.

Script Formatting Notes

  • Draft Read: Undated
  • Type: Shooting
  • Page Count: 112
  • Reading Speed: Medium
  • Setting(s): Rural Florida
  • Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple months
  • Genre(s): Religion, Comedy, Action
  • Theme(s): Religion, Prison, Nihilism
  • Protagonist Change: None

Overall Thoughts

Why even write new screenplays? Really, we could just remake some of the greats of yesteryear like Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption and call it a day.

Why’s the screenplay great? That’s like asking why The Oxbow is a great painting or The Thinker is a beloved sculpture. I’ve done my best to share a few of the script’s many strengths:

  • Not a word is wasted – There are no bloated scenes, waste-of-time conversations, etc. in this script. Everything has it’s place.
  • We bounce from high to low – Going to prison? Low. Losing (but psychologically winning) the boxing fight? High. Escaping? High. Getting caught? Low. Escaping again? High. Sending a photo of yourself on the outside to the guys back in the prison? high. Getting arrested again? :ow. Pretending you give up? Low. Escaping again? High. Mocking the captain? Still high.
  • The protagonist (Luke) doesn’t care – At various points throughout the script, he’s an underdog, hero, jackass, comedian, hustler, performer, and the list goes on… He doesn’t care. He doesn’t want fame, money, women. He’s one of those guys we all know that could be successful at anything if they tried. Yet Luke never tries. Why? Because he doesn’t care!

Plot

This is a prison movie yet the thought/idea of escaping doesn’t even show up until well into Act 2 (far past the 50% mark of the screenplay). In fact, much of the first half of the script seems rather aimless. Luke certainly has no strong ambitions. It’s not like Luke has a big goal in life, if anything he feels trapped.

Characters

You have Luke, who I have already explained in detail. Then there’s Dragline, the alpha prisoner who Luke wins over. On the authority side of the equation, you have the Captain, who thinks he gets Luke, but can’t ever break him down. Finally, there’s Godfrey, a cold, mean boss (think guard) who doesn’t say a word but doesn’t need too for us to hate his guts. It’s really no surprise George Kennedy won an Oscar for his performance of Dragline, but all the characters are clearly well thought out.

Dialogue & Pacing

There isn’t much witty dialogue here. But all of the lines carry power. Every spoken word relates back to the core themes.

The script is episodic, although most of the scenes revolve around the rural prison. There’s no clear direction until Luke escapes, then we realize that all of the screenplay up until that point has been showing Luke taking on challenges, standing up to the law, etc. In other words, it has revealed character.

Emotional Impact

The most impactful part of the script happens between Luke and his mother, Arletta, when she comes to visit. Luke shows his core beliefs through a few lines. Example:

Tried to live always just as free and aboveboard as you been, and well, they ain’t that much elbow room.

It’s a pretty broad and relatable belief, still very relevant today. In reality, that’s the entire movie in one line.

Later in that same scene, he tells his nephew not to end up like himself.

Best Part of The Script

The whole darn thing. The egg-eating contest is a highlight for sure.

Any person who doesn’t like this screenplay can spend a night in the box!


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