From the very beginning of the movie, the audience is already presented with non-conformity and disobedience to the law or authority. The character, Luke, was first introduced in the movie by cutting the heads off parking meters. He was obviously drunk and his actions are against the law, and thus were brought to court where he was asked to defend his side. According to the findings of Flloyd Allport’s studies, conformers usually do not make extreme judgments whenever they are in the presence of others.
On the other hand, since Luke was a non-conformer, he does not deviate from his own beliefs, but rather deviates from the society. Instead of defending his self, his strong spirit remained and he told the court that he was just trying to settle up some old scores. It may suggest that he had previous problems or violations regarding parking rules, thought there were no clues given about it. His deviance irritated those in authority and caused him to be thrown in Florida prison, receiving a punishment which does not fit his crime. In the prison, he becomes part of a chain gang, and his individual life becomes entangled with the other inmate’s lives.
People who are sent to prison usually tends to conform to the authority who maintains the order, however, Luke who had been a non-conformer even before being sent to the prison does not. He still continues to throw cheerful comments and all-around bravado against the authority in the prison. He always finds something wrong in the prison system and boldly states this with cheerful remarks. This type of non-conformity is opposite to the type of conformity called the “normative influence”.
Instead of being afraid of disapproval by conforming to the expectations of the other inmates in the prison, Luke does not conform to their expectations. He gets the approval of the other inmates by continuing his non-conforming personality and by exceeding the expectations of his inmates. A scene in the movie shows how he raised a bet to eat 50 boiled eggs in one hour, resulting to an applause or raised fame inside the prison. His deviance and stubbornness even became more evident when he fought a boxing match with another prisoner named Dragline. He was beaten and defeated by Dragline in the match.
However, he persists on not giving up and tried to stand up everytime he falls down. The match only ended when Dragline walked away from it. Such actions, stubbornness and non-conformity led to the development of conformity among other prisoners towards him. Moreover, Luke shared his experience of being a buck private during his entire service to the military when he first entered the Florida prison. He received several medals that recognize his bravery, courage and may even show his humanitarian side, while in the service.
These medals did not only show his performance as a private but also gave proof of his deviance to authority. It can be thought that he does not receive any promotion or his performance is not seen by his superiors because he was having a hard time in obeying authority. On the other hand, it may also suggest that he receives promotion after receiving the medals, but gets demoted afterwards because of his non-conforming personality. The other prisoners used what they know of Luke as a standard of someone they can idolize. In addition to this, Luke’s individuality as compared to the others and his relative status in comparison with group stands out, proving that he may be someone who can be admired.
Luke becomes well known in the minds of the prisoners and the authority alike by escaping several times from prison. In one of his escapes which actually took a very long time, Luke sends a magazine to his inmates or other prisoners containing a photograph. The photograph shows Luke together with two beautiful women and because of this, the inmates felt thrilled and their expectations or admiration towards Luke increased. His status in relation to the others prisoners was raised because of his competence and cunning intelligence as proved by his escapes.
On the other hand, he was later on caught and because he was already notorious, the prison authorities already marked him and he was beaten severely. In one of the scenes, Lucas Jackson was even placed in “the box” to prevent him from trying to escape during the death of his mother. The authorities thought that Luke might use the death of his mother as an alibi to escape again, and the authorities do not want this to happen. They even give harder or heavier punishments to Luke as compared to the other inmates until at last, Luke’s spirit was shattered and he conforms to the authority.
The veneration which the other prisoners had towards look was lost as the deviant spirit of Luke was shattered. He was treated with utmost care by his fellow inmates after he was severely beaten because of their admiration of his greatness, as proved by the picture he has sent them. However, Luke was already delirious because of the pain he had suffered and admits to the other prisoners that it was merely a fake. He even added that it cost him a lot to pay for it.
By the time that Luke had recovered from his injuries, the admiration which the other prisoners had already has a crack on it and the movie shows how they kept their distance from Luke. They somehow do not believe his admission and persuaded their selves to believe falsely of his greatness. They do not want to believe the harsh reality of an individual who is being pursued by the authority. This result to a “real enforcement pressure” which somehow tells a false compliance of the prisoners to the myth they created about Luke and a false reinforcement (Centola et.al. p.1036).
The punishment which was given to him by the authorities, of digging a large hole, filling and digging it up again, further decreased his fame and eventually led to a struggle to death. The prisoners felt shame everytime they were to look at Luke. Luke, who wanted to maintain the approval of his inmates and wanting a rest for his body, conformed to the authority after he collapsed from exhaustion. He was seen by the prisoners begging for mercy from the Boss or the head of the prison authority.
He wanted them to stop from beating him. Such conformity finally destroyed the admiration which he gained through his deviant attitude or behavior before. His conformity to the authority led to the non-conformity of the prisoners towards Luke. A scene in the movie shows a prisoner tearing up the picture of Luke together with the two beautiful ladies. When Luke collapsed, he was no longer helped by the other prisoners and he had a hard time going to his own bed.
Finally, everyone deserted him and he was again alone. Nonetheless, he mustered his strength and spirit to once again escape from prison. He was successful and this even resulted to the escape of another prisoner, Dragline. The last scenes movie took place in a church where Luke went in to resort to God. The authority, especially Dragline, tried to bring him back.
However, despite the stress which was given by his current condition, he maintains his independence by disobeying and mocking the captain (Asch, p.569). The authorities disgusted with his actions, announce that it was “a failure of communication” and shot him to death. After his death, Dragline immortalized Luke by telling his legend and his blissful escapes to the other prisoners; Luke becoming an embodiment of the prisoner’s rebellious desires.
If Luke had decided to return, then he would be defeated and become like the other prisoners who would need to conform to the authority in order to stay alive. However, his non-conformity led to the continuation of Luke the hero and to an ultimate, personal freedom. Luke’s death supports the thought or concept that an individual will not be able to win against the system and clearly shows the “violation” of the human spirit.
Asch, S. E. Effects of Group Pressure Upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments. Journal of Soc. Psychology.
Centola, D., Willer, R., & Macy, M. The Emperor's Dillema: A Computational Model of Self-Enforcing Norms. American Journal of Sociology.
Pearce, D. (November 1, 1967). Cool Hand Luke. New York: Warner Bros.