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"Cool Hand Luke"
Be The Stuff of Legends - A "Cool Hand Luke" case study
"Cool Hand Luke"
How a guy who despite being "fresh meat" in a prison, shackled to a chain gang and badly losing a fight with the leading Alpha Male, still ends up as more dominant than the prison guards themselves, and gets the girls.
This is the story of Cool Hand Luke, from a new perspective.
The subject of the Alpha Male is an oft debated topic in our circles. I think we can all agree on our definition of a True Alpha Male: at his very basic he's one who can command respect and loyal support through social manipulation.
Western culture tends to use a narrow defintion of what makes an alpha male. This is one who exhibits physical strength and a dominant physical presence. These are the toughest guys who keep others submissive by either the obvious or subtle threat of physical consequences. These kinds of people are more common in our society and can be found in most groups.
The rarer kind is the one who exhibits hegemonic masculinity, the ability to scale the social ladder without need of strength but through the ability to make people want and enjoy his authority. This is the True Alpha Male, and this is the character of Luke, in the following case study.
"Cool Hand Luke".
Why is this even relevent? Why should we watch a movie as an example of what an Alpha Male is? Don't we already know what one is; isn't it better to go out and try it? Isn't reading the massive amount of theory and articles already there enough to give us all the answers we need. Yes to all of the above.
However, as human beings it's much more difficult to learn certain physical skills simply by reading about them. Remember, human beings evolved over millions of years, long before language, and long before writing was invented. They learned by watching and immitation. Even today, a child learns so much and develops most of it's personality long before it's able to read properly.
This is why I believe it is important to find as many examples of these qualities as you can if you want to get better. Movies, in general since they are make believe and not real life, are not good examples, unless they also function extremely well as believable dramas, which this film does, making it the exception. It's a classic.
It's one of my favourites, and recently I watched again, and noticed for the first time just what the lead character does to elevate his status throughout the movie. It was fascinating to see this, and learn from it and is what inspired me to write this article.
I think it makes an interesting case study to model. These are my own interpretations, and may differ from yours depending on your level of expertise and experience. Though the character makes mistakes, he does those because he's a flawed dramatic character, and it makes him interesting. Those mistakes are not to be modelled for they can lead to our downfall, but to be learned from. Meanwhile, his better qualities, demeanour, his actions, his attitude, his beliefs and his motivation can all be applied directly to our own lives and makes us stronger, better men.
Now onto the movie.
Here is a guy who despite being "fresh meat", shackled to a chain gang and badly losing a fight with the leading Alpha Male, he still ends up as more dominant than the prison guards themselves, and gets the girls.
Luke, played by Paul Newman, is jailed for 2 years at the beginning of the movie. He's lined up in front of the warden along with three other prisoners. As their sentences and crimes are read aloud each of them tries in vain to come up with pleas and excuses, but when it gets to Luke's turn he smiles and makes a joke. The warden then reads out his list of accomplishments in the War to which Luke gives a modest answer: "I was just passing time".
He doesn't qualify himself, nor does he boast about his accomplishments.
Ten minutes in to the movie we meet Dragline, a fellow inmate, he's clearly the dominant guy in this prison. From the moment we meet him he's dishing out orders, sorting out disagreements and giving out commands. The new guys are arguing with him and he responds with this.
"You're freshmeats. You're gonna have to shape up hard and fast to be in this gang. We got rules here and in order to learn them you gotta do more work with your ears than your mouth".
This shuts them up, but immediately Luke sniggers, clearly unimpressed with Dragline's authority. When questioned Luke responds "I didn't say nothing", and adds with sarcasm, "Boss". Not impressed with his authority at all.
Another prisoner advises him to respect Dragline.
"You don't listen much, do you boy" sneers Dragline
"I aint heard nothing much worth listening to. A lot of guys laying down rules and regulations", replies Luke.
The group now change their tactic, maybe seeing him as tough enough for their gang so they invite him into the poker game. They give him a chance to be their buddy. He turns them down. By accepting their invitation he would be submitting to their authority. He would be acknowledging that he needed and appreciated their friendship. He declines - he's his own man.
Dragline tried to exert his dominance by first commanding him to obey him, and when that didn't work, by then "letting" him be in their group. By refusing he maintained his status, and rattled Dragline's cage a little.
This is the first of several battles for dominance between Luke and Dragline.
Who's the boss
The next morning on the truck ride to their job, the prisoners try to sell a "cushy job" to the new guys. Dragline suggests Luke should buy it, which he refuses, and one of the gullible prisoners accepts not knowing it's just a trick and they're all doing menial work.
They then goad and make fun of Luke about how he got jailed. Instead of getting mad, embarrassed or upset he smiles, leans back and jokes about it. They can't phase him like this, he's secure even in his mistakes.
Later that night while commenting on that unsuspecting prisoner who broke the rules on his first day and got a night in the hole, Dragline gives a speech about how you just gotta obey the rules. He obviously believes in the rules, because besides helping the prison guards maintain dominance it actually helps him maintain dominance among the other prisoners. His rules help him assert his authority, and keep all the lesser males in line.
Luke reframes this and says "yeah you gotta give those bosses all the help they can get", which is a superb way to maintain his frame. He knows he's better than everyone here, and it's only a matter of time before the others see it. He won't submit to any of these rules.
Dragline doesn't like this response one bit; he considers himself a boss and his authority is clearly attacked.
Another battle lost. Under his breath, he vows to "deal with" Luke one of these days.
The next day while working on the road a woman comes out to wash her car. she's young, blonde, big breasted and very sexy. To top it off she's carrying a sponge and a bucket of soapy water. The fact that her car is already clean is beside the point, the prisoners are enjoying every minute of it. Each squeeze of that sponge, each spray of the hose sends each of them into a frenzy; they can barely concentrate on their jobs.
Dragline is the most besotted with her, even naming her Lucille. She's got the magic combination of innocence and raging sexuality and he's fallen in love with her just on sight alone.
"She doesn't know what she's doing" says one of the men.
Luke just smiles knowingly and says "Oh boy, she knows exactly what she's doing". He understands women better than these guys do and keeps a cool head.
Later that night Dragline is still obsessed with Lucille and inventing all kinds of scenarios for he and her. He's goading the other men too with thoughts of her, knowing how affected they all were by her, and being men in prison just the thoughts of a beautiful woman can make them lose their minds. Luke tells him to cut it out. It's not helping anyone to keep obsessing over her.
Dragline continues to goad him with thoughts of her. Luke remains cool and tells him to "Forget it. It aint doing nobody any good", and refuses to return Dragline's eye contact.
Another battle last, and is the last straw. Dragline warns him that there's going to be a fight. He's failed to dominate him using all his usual methods, so he resorts to the old reliable technique.
Let's settle this
The next day, they settle it once and for all. Luke couldn't be dominated in any other way and now Dragline is determined to pummel him in the boxing ring. He's bigger, tougher, stronger and faster and should win this quickly.
Luke doesn't stand a chance, his own punches are weak and barely affect his opponent while each jab from Dragline sends him stumbling to the ground. He was losing the fight from the moment it started. Finally the Alpha Male is maintaining his dominance.
The fight is painful to watch - it's clear who the winner is here. The other prisoners urge Luke to stay down, because it's obvious to them he's lost.
However, not so. Despite being the physically weaker man here Luke gets up. Each time he's beaten down, he gets back up again. Support for Dragline turns into pity for Luke. And still Luke fights on and on.
The dramatic reasons for this are clear, it's to set up how determined Luke is for the latter half of the movie during which he is determined to break out of prison. However, this isn't an analysis for film school. We're analysing how this action increases his status and power amongst the prisoners.
At first, it's not clear. The look of disgust on people's faces as Luke is beaten doesn't seem to indicate any respect for this man. Only human empathy for a beaten fighter.
However, Luke gets up again, and again. Even when he can barely keep his balance he's refusing to quit. He's urged to stay down, for his own good, but he ignores this and stands up to face another punch, and another, and another.
"Somebody oughta stop this thing" says another prisoner as the fight continues, each time Luke's face becoming more and more bloodied.
And on the fight goes, Dragline is a fair fighter and continues only while Luke wants to continue, and continue he does. The two alpha males are going head to head, it's only over when one submits, and Luke shows no sign of submission.
Instead, the fight ends, when out of sympathy, empathy, weariness, who knows, Dragline, picks up Luke before he falls, hoping this will encourage him to submit.
Luke punches him, and again Dragline responds with a greater blow. "Stay down. You're beat". He believes he's the winner, and he is. He's the greater fighter, but is he dominant here?
Dominance is a measure of how submissive the other man is, and though Luke is beaten he has not yet submitted. "You're gonna have to kill me", and throws more weak punches. Dragline is not a murderer and walks away. Though he won the fight, he didn't win the battle for dominance. He was the first to submit, by walking away.
This is the key defining moment of Luke's character. Even though he lost the fight and is a pitiful sight in the ring he has shown every prisoner here that he refused to submit to the physically dominant alpha male. He's shown every man that if they threaten him physically they better be prepared to go the distance. Even the reigning Alpha Male is not willing to do that, and by refusing that he has handed his dominance over to Luke.
Later that day they're playing cards, and Luke bluffs his way into winning a hand. Dragline laughs affectionately and says "Just like today he kept coming back at me with nothing".
Luke is now the Man in the prison and he responds "Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand." With that verbal confirmation, he's now won the respect of everybody, especially Dragline.
From then on Luke is the centre of everyone's attention, he leads and directs this gang of men without even looking like he's trying. They depend on him for their strength and inspiration, as he leads them through prison life. He motivates the chain gang into working faster than ever before and he becomes the ring leader behind the escape attempts. When he sends them the picture of him with two gorgeous women on his arms they don't doubt it for a second (even though he later claims it's a fake - is it?). They don't question anything he says, to them he's a source of strength and hope during hard times.
He was the leader of men from the moment he walked into that prison - all he had to do was show it them, before they eventually, and willingly relented.
So, what can be learned from this. This is a movie about men, and for men. It is as the quote from Cheers goes "the sweatiest movie ever made". It's about leaders of men, all who lead for different reasons: whether they be guards, physically dominant or in Luke's case - a natural.
Is his situation unique or can we repeat his actions and dominate in our own social groups? Here are some of the key points of his character that allow him to fly up the social ladder.
- He never qualifies or justifies his actions. He's secure in everything he does, even his mistakes.
The lesson: Don't question your own actions, or others will question them too.
- He refuses to accept the authority of other men that's thrust upon him. There's no reason why they should dominate him - they're in the same boat he is. How he reacts to this defines his character. He doesn't get out of control, he coolly and confidently demonstrates that he won't accept it. Dominance is a measure of how submissive the other person is, and he is anything but submissive.
The lesson: Never submit.
- He shows respect to the others, and doesn't throw his weight around. He's relaxed and friendly, and never hostile. He never gives them an excuse to hate him, and when they come to him he makes them feel good about themselves.
The lesson: Be compassionate and supporting of the lesser men.
- When he's beaten in one way (in the boxing ring) he raises the stakes in another (by doing the unexpected and not giving in). He's got nothing but he keeps coming back, and in the end his determination pushes Dragline into submission and sends a message to all the others that if they want to beat him in this way they have to be prepared to go further than the reigning Alpha Male is prepared to. Of course, none of them are.
The lesson here is: If someone can dominate you in one way, turn the tables on them - turn their strength into a weakness.
Find a way to force them to push themselves beyond their own limits, and out of their comfort zone. In other words: turn the pressure back on them.
At some point in our quests to be True Alpha Males we will come across people who will at first try to dominate us with all their usual tools. If those don't work they will search us for weakness and then use something they know can dominate us with. We all have our weaknesses and even the worst of Alpha Males have their strengths. If they attempt to use their true strength to dominate us we have no option but to figure out a way of turning that into a weakness.
That, is the key to being a True Alpha Male, where nobody's strengths either mental or physical can take away your dominance.
True Alpha Males are very rare in our society - it's why they often become the stuff of legends, whether fictional or real. I doubt there are more than a few in this community. Many Alpha Males of their own groups, I'm sure, but few True Alpha Males, even though some might claim to be.
Remember, whatever level you are at, there are many levels to this game, and there's always a bigger fish.
Luke can't be dominant forever - he's a human being (and a dramatic character) so has faults like everyone. His mistakes can serve as lessons for us, to correct flaws in our character, while his triumphs and actions can serve as inspiration and a model for us to base our ideal selves on.
In the end Luke makes mistakes which lead to his partial downfall, but because he lived so well he becomes the stuff of legends. A True Alpha Male lives well, and hopes to maintain his status throughout his life. Some succeed, but being only human, there are those who don't. Either way, living a life that becomes a path for lesser men to follow and be inspired by will insure that there are enough stories and legends to be told about you to take you through the dark times and beyond.
Do you want people to tell great stories about you? Then live that kind of life, don't just follow those who do, and every once in a while I hope we can all "deal a cool hand".
- Cool Hand Kent
Great post, very informative. Your analysis of what makes Luke alpha has already given me inspiration and several ideas, especially to never qualify yourself, this shows lower value (you are seeking approval). I have been guilty of jumping through small qualifying hoops when they are presented to me, I will be working to become more like Luke and jump through no hoops
this should go in "best of"
i added this to my notes
im feeling even more alpha already
im going to rent this movie asap
Hey man, neat post. You clearly spent some time on it and I thank you for it!
Great post, and very informative. I appreciate the time it must have taken. Everyone can benefit from this.
I can't believe anybody read all of it. Damn that shit is long.
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