Cool Hand Luke stars Paul Newman and expresses themes of life in the prison camp system that was in play throughout the American South in the 1950's and 1960's. Released in 1967, the movie was chosen by the United States Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film in 2005 and was designated for preservation in the National Film Registry.
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1. The type of prison is a prison camp in Florida. Because of the climate, there is not much precaution taken against cold weather. The prisoners spend much of their time working outside, and the climate makes the open-air nature of their existence more palatable. While rain is frequent, the buildings provide temporary shelter.
2. The housing structure has the style of a barracks, where prisoners share two-person bunk beds in a larger room with several dozen prisoners in each building. There is no climate control in the barracks, but the windows are screened and are generally left open as the temperate Florida climate means that having the night breezes will make a somewhat comfortable sleeping environment. Each barracks has a leader – which in this movie is Dragline (played by George Kennedy).
3. All of the inmates are male. Only a handful are African-Americans; the rest are Caucasian. The ages range from the twenties well up to the forties and fifties. Other than separation by gender, there is no real segregation along any other lines during the film.
4. The purpose of the correctional officers in this movie is to make the prisoners experience punitive actions with the goal of breaking their spirits and removing their desire to break the law. This is symbolized by the repeated attempts of Luke to break out of prison and the increasingly brutal responses of the prison's leadership, which includes beatings, isolation, and even forcing Luke to eat a pile of rice which would expand his stomach afterward causing pain.
5. The prisoners get up early each morning, have breakfast, and then go out and work as a gang throughout the day. The labor is hard; the prisoners eat lunch out on the work site and then return to the prison camp at night in order to eat dinner and prepare for bed.
6. Interactions between officers and inmates is generally limited to verbal redirections and punishment. There is nothing rehabilitative about this prison – the purpose of its design is to punish any insubordination and break prisoners of the impulse to commit crimes.
7. Officers have wide discretion when it comes to the use of force. The Captain and other officers beat Luke mercilessly with even greater violence with each ensuing attempt that Luke makes to escape. Also, guards beat prisoners who do not work according to the gang standards during the working day.
8. Violence between inmates is fairly rare in the movie although Dragline and Luke do fight when Dragline gets tired of Luke's mouth. The result of the fight is that Dragline ultimately respects Luke, and the two do not fight anymore. Other than establishing territory and a system of mutual respect, though, there is no other violence that takes place. Prisoners in the movie have a general sense of solidarity and so tend not to attack one another without reason.
9. There is no interaction between inmates and family members in this movie.
10. I would definitely not have wanted to be in prison during this time period. While imprisonment is not something that sounds attractive at any time, the long work conditions and the cruelty of the guards were particularly loathsome. There were none of the problems that go along with drugs or gangs problems that happen in today's prisons, but the conditions were inhospitable enough to make prison seem like a definite reason not to commit crimes.
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