The number one rule of screenwriting, something that every writing instructor will beat into your brain, is that you cannot have a passive protagonist. Your main character must want something, and the more tangible that something, and the more actively your protagonist pursues it, the better. Alfred Hitchcock may have done more for this rule than any other screenwriter. Hitchcock made a career on his use of the MacGuffin.
So, why then, is Cool Hand Luke such a successful film? Released in 1967, it received favorable reviews from critics and was nominated for numerous academy awards. It has a Metascore of 92, and ranks 71st on AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Cheers list. And it did all this with a passive protagonist.
The film starts with an aimless, drunken Luke decapitating parking meters with a pipe cutter, and for seemingly no good reason. Luke ends up in a chain gang prison camp serving a two-year sentence. At first, Luke does not fit in with his fellow inmates, but eventually wins them over with tenacity and charm. It is not until the second half of the film that Luke finds motivation to act.
Upon receiving news of his mother’s death, the prison boss puts Luke in the “box” for a couple nights to prevent him from trying to run off to attend his mother’s funeral. Once the funeral is over, Luke is returned to the general population of the camp. But for whatever reason, Luke is now determined to escape. This is the action that carries the film to its conclusion. But what about the first half of the film? How did the screenwriters, Pearce and Pierson, draw us in and keep us engaged without an active protagonist?
The answer is they fooled us. Luke was active from page one. In the very first scene of the film, when Luke vandalizes the parking meters, his drunken dialog reveals his want.
LUKE: Okay, Mister General, you son of a bitch. Sir. Think you can put things right with a piece of tin with a ribbon hangin’ on it? Gonna put you right.
This is the first line of dialog in the film and, in fact, it tells us exactly what Luke wants. Luke wants to stick it to the man. There is no way that an audience member watching this film for the first time will understand the importance of the first line. But as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Luke has a problem with authority, and will go to his grave defying it. And that is exactly what happens. Luke is only able to get his want by bringing about his own death. Even then his victory is small and partial. Luke is free, though dead, the world has not changed, and the Man is still in power. But for Luke, this Pyrrhic victory is enough.
Luke knew, as most of us do, that the deck is stacked against the average man. This is why he is so aimless in the first half of the film. There is no action he can take that will improve his lot in life, so why try? Instead of buying into a system that exploits him, he resolves to subvert it.
This is perhaps best exemplified by the scene where Luke gets his eponymous nickname from Dragline, the prison camp heavy. Luke plays cards with his fellow inmates and bluffs a worthless hand into a winning hand. This is also the moment where leadership of the group passes from Dragline to Luke.
DRAGLINE: Nuthin’! A handful of nuthin’! (cuffs Koko) You stupid mullet-head. He beat you with nuthin’! Just like today when he kept coming back at me.
LUKE: Nuthin’ can be a pretty cool hand.
DRAGLINE: Cool Hand Luke.
Though Luke appears to be a passive protagonist, his character’s want is ultimately revealed, and it is the thing that drives the plot. In the end, Cool Hand Luke, rather than subverting the top rule of dramatic writing, actually ends up proving it.
You can find a PDF version of the script at Script Slug.