Frank Pierson, a prolific Hollywood screenwriter, died this week. He wrote scripts for Dog Day Afternoon, Cat Ballou, and many TV shows, including consulting on the recent hits Mad Men and The Good Wife. He even directed films like The Looking Glass War and A Star is Born. Despite all this success he will always be remembered for one line of dialogue. One transcendent line that captured an entire Zeitgeist.
Pierson wrote the script for Cool Hand Luke which starred Paul Newman as a anti-establishment, carefree guy who got arrested for some petty offenses while drunk and was sentenced to the chain gang in a nightmare of a southern prison camp. Luke is a sort of anti-hero bucking the system and punished by an unjust law. Strother Martin played the deeply redneck captain of the chain gang. After an escape attempt Newman is dragged back to the captain.
Looking down at Newman, with a menacing demeanor in a southern drawl, Martin utters the famous line: “What we’ve got here … is failure to communicate.”
It instantly became a popular catch phrase. It summed up all our problems with the establishment. We were just coming out of the 60s and into the Vietnam War and Watergate. We all hated the abuse of power. Luke failed to understand the one-way nature of communication from brutes like the captain to powerless peons like him. It was to get him in line. Shades of Randall McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Authority spoke and we have no choice but to listen and obey. We failed to understand their message; Nixon, Hoover, the draft and almost everybody over the age of 30. All of which we were assured was for our own good. The line is ironic. It is a mockery of the principle behind it. But most who use it today don’t get it. They cite it as a call to communicate better. It reminds me of the oft-repeated quote from the Frost poem that walls make good neighbors. Frost meant they don’t.
One further thought about this film, it is further proof we should distrust those who use words of justice as an excuse to punish.