Plastic Jesus and the Passion story

Brief notes on “Cool Hand Luke” (spoilers ahead)

I just watched “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) for the first time yesterday. One of the first things that called my attention is how many similarities it has with the later “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), only that it’s in a chain-gang prison instead of an insane asylum, and with the “rebel outsider” played by Paul Newman instead of Jack Nicholson. But really, they should have sued for plagiarism.

Or perhaps, the theme of rebellion against authority or against an unjust system simply was the main motif of the times. After all, it was present in a lot of popular music of the 1960s and 1970s, too.

Both films have a similar structure. “Cool Hand Luke”, however, is much more direct in its Christian allegories and visual references, which might seem a bit strange, since the film was directed by a Jew called Rosenberg. (Milos Forman, director of “One Flew”, was of course also Jewish).

There are too many references to count to the New Testament, direct or indirect, from the name of the character (Luke, like the Apostle) to the “raising from the grave” scene, to the “cross” image over the picture at the end — but also the songs used in the film are relevant and play on the religious theme.

At one point, Paul Newman’s character sings a song called “Plastic Jesus”. While some may see the lyrics as flippant, in the context of the scene, sung after the death of the character’s mother, they become actually very moving. You can watch the scene below.

For that and several other reasons, the movie made me think about the basics of the Passion story — you know, the theme of sacrificing yourself for others. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. To die, so that others may live.

I don’t think it was a very common theme before Christianity. In some of the Nordic or Greek ancient myths you have a warrior or even King who dies in battle, in a way sacrificing himself for his people, but it is more about the courage of facing death or about fighting until the end. Then you do have some stories of self-sacrifice as revenge — for instance, in the story of Samson in the Old Testament, he kills himself in order to kills his enemies too — like a suicide bomber avant-la-lettre.

But the idea of someone simply forfeiting his own life for the benefit of others seems a somewhat novel idea, which however has become common in many later stories and movies. Not always in a good way, of course. I can think of many movies where it becomes corny or annoying. For instance, in Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” (2008), while not a bad movie, the ending with the self-sacrifice annoys me a bit. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels false.

In “Cool Hand Luke”, however, it works, even though here it is perhaps not so much about self-sacrifice for others (does Newman’s death change anything for any of the other prisoners? Not really) as about dying and thus becoming an undying myth of hope, a story that people will tell over and over again.

Some may say that the intention of the film is subversive — after all, it seems to be comparing a petty criminal to Jesus — but I don’t think it’s the case here, or, at least, I didn’t see it as offensive at all. I wouldn’t call it a religious film either. But it’s one that uses Christian imagery and themes in an effective way.

I don’t think it has much to do with belief either. I don’t know what the screenwriters’ beliefs were, but Jorge Luis Borges, who was an avowed atheist, used Christian images and references in a few of his stories, while J. R. Tolkien, who was a fervent Catholic, set his universe in a fantastic, mythical pre-Christian land, where the references are only indirect.

I think the explanation is that “Cool Hand Luke” was made in 1967, and portrays an even earlier time, which looks like the 1940s or early 1950s. Back then, religion and religious references in fiction were not completely out of common people’s universe, as they are now. Today, in the age of Drag Queen Story Hour, it has become almost impossible to refer to Christian imagery in a way that is not ironic, cynical or just purposefully offensive.

And, in fact, as if to prove the point, more recent covers of “Plastic Jesus”, such as the Billy Idol one, tend to accentuate the parodic, blasphemous meaning with additional lyrics that have little to do with the original song.