The movie Cool Hand Luke presents several different and interrelated existentialist themes on aspects of faith and belief. Luke is portrayed as a "good ol' boy" that is fun-loving and hard working. He seems bored and restless with life; he always seems to searching for something more and when he doesn't find it; he looks for ways to fill the void and the monotony of living: ". . . it's somethin' to do, ain't it?" This attitude well sets the tone for the aspect of faith as portrayed in Cool Hand Luke.
Cool Hand Luke
1967, starring Paul Newman
Throughout the movie, Luke displays a nominal faith. It is as though he has the will to believe in something moreon some level he undoubtedly doesbut it almost seems he is predisposed to believing that God is distant and uncaring. And he may well have good reason to feel this way: his father was absent in his own life. Professor Paul C. Vitz (New York University) postulates an unusual theory in his article "The Psychology of Atheism."1 He uses Freud's model of the Oedipus complex2 to reflect on Freud's own life and the life of other noted atheists and non-believers. Freud unwittingly lived out his own theory. However, Vitz admits that this hypothesis is of only limited usefulness and has been called into question by some people. So he takes it one step further, quoting Freud himself: Psychoanalysis, which has taught us the intimate connection between the father complex and belief in God, has shown us that the personal God is logically nothing but an exalted father, and daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down (Leonardo da Vinci, 1910, 1947 p. 98).3 This all but universally accepted idea of our fathers largely determining our view of God, when applied to fathers who are unworthy (or perceived to be unworthy) of respect, abusive, neglectful, or absent, could well explain the anti-God sentiment Freud and others displayed. Indeed, Freud's own relationship with his father was bitterly disappointing. And Luke never even met his father, left not only to fend for himself but also to shoulder the responsibility for his entire family. He quickly learned to trust in himself and himself alone. If Professor Vitz is correct in his analysis, it should come as no surprise that Luke would be predisposed to think of God as being distant at best and absent or sadistic at worst.4 There are many instances throughout the film that demonstrate this perspective of Luke's faith. When Luke's mother, whom he loves dearly, dies, he sings a woeful song about a plastic Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Then there is the incident where the men are out working on the road and it begins to rain. The crew is told to get in the convoy, but Luke defiantly refuses, standing in the rain, shaking his fist at an empty sky, obviously testing what he is certain will be an imaginary or uncaring God. Then there is the incident where he prays to God that the guard will not hit him anymore when he is digging the ditch in the Boss's yard. Or, at the end of the movie he is in an empty church calling on the "Old Man" to answer him, but no response seems to be forthcoming. In fact, he feels God has let him down, playing a cruel joke on him at the climatic ending. The entire movie is so obviously a statement of religion that it would seem incomplete to stop with Luke's attitude alone. Many scenes are characterized by religiousand specifically Judeo-Christianmotifs, such as the songs that the crew sing, the numerous portrayals of Luke as a sort of antihero messiah, the rain that always pours when God is brought into the question . . . I believe that the screenwriter clearly portrays disillusionment with Christianity, God, and life itself. His statement of faith seems to be that though it helps certain starry-eyed persons feel better, there really is no personal God on the other end to connect with: that He is distant, uncaring,...