Lucas Jackson, the protagonist of the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, displays the kind of conviction in his own worth that Ralph Waldo Emerson recommends in Self-Reliance. From cutting off the heads of parking meters to encouraging his friends in prison to tar a road at an impressive rate, Luke rebels and rises above the oppression imposed on him.
Within the opening scene of Cool Hand Luke, the parking meters are symbolic of societal restraint on individual freedom and choice. By arbitrary fiat of local government, the meters place a limit on the duration of time for which an individual can place his car at a particular location, thus limiting the amount of time an individual can spend going about his own business outside the car in the vicinity and diverting an individual’s funds into the stagnant coffers of bureaucracy.
Luke’s destruction of the parking meters is symbolic of the individualist’s attempt to defy societal restrictions. Though he is drunk and semi-conscious, he nevertheless directs his actions not toward some wanton spree of murder or theft but toward the elimination of a nuisance to individual liberty. In return, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance, society “whips him with its displeasure,” as he is apprehended, arrested, and locked in a facility where his own liberty becomes virtually nil.
Self-Reliance has further relevance to Luke’s demeanor in prison. Emerson writes, “I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.”
Luke epitomizes this philosophy when he neglects to degrade himself to the level of the standard “new meat” prison novice. He proudly asserts his name as “Lucas Jackson” during Carl’s declaration of the rules and refuses to submit his dignity to Dragline’s decision to recognize him as a significant member of the prison community. He realizes that he does not need the recognition of others in order to exhibit his self-worth or actualize his potential, but rather that those characteristics flow from within himself.
Later, when the prisoners are forced to tar an extensive stretch of road in oppressive heat, Luke encourages his comrades to labor to their fullest capacity and finish the tarring job at a far swifter pace than had been expected of them. He realizes that an intelligent approach that facilitates coordinated activity among the members of the group would both accomplish the task and frame it as a challenge to be aspired toward in the minds of the prisoners.
Luke transcends what has been assigned to him and transforms the dull routine into a search for his own objective, leisure time that is immensely difficult to acquire in a road prison. Once he establishes the tempo of work, all the other members of his gang gravitate toward his approach and undertake a lively, motivated effort. This is reminiscent of Emerson’s proposition that men will come to admire and uphold the man of intrinsic determination and self-reliance. Ultimately, not only is the ardor of the assignment alleviated by the workers’ internal drive, but they receive additional leisure afterward to use as they please.