The WGF Blog:

Dispatches from the far reaches of the WGF.

Screenplay 101: COOL HAND LUKE


 Francesca Baird is the UCLA MIAS intern in the WGF Archive.

The titular character of COOL HAND LUKE is a man of few words. As written in the screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson (based on Pearce’s novel of the same name) Luke stoically goes about his business, inspiring his fellow prisoners through his actions more than his words. In the early scenes of the film, Luke remains a mystery: an intelligent, charismatic war hero who one day decided to get drunk and destroy municipal property, leading to his arrest. There’s little indication as to why Luke is the way he is until his invalid mother, Arletta, rolls up in the back of a truck for Visiting Day at the prison.

You think life is some kind of ocean voyage and you start
out with buntin’ and hollerin’ and high hopes, but the
damn ship goes down before you ever reach the other side.

This bit of dialogue, taken from a draft dated 9/29/66, doesn’t exist in the film. It doesn’t need to, lovely as it is, because Arletta manages to communicate the same sentiment to Luke in much simpler terms. This graceful brevity is one of many reasons that COOL HAND LUKE is number 82 on WGA’s List of 101 Greatest Screenplays. It’s amazing how much back-story Pearce and Pierson manage to fit into this brief scene between Luke and his mother. The viewer learns about Luke’s childhood, the absence of his father, and his mother’s ambivalent feelings toward Luke and his brother, John. What could have been overwrought is instead written in a way that’s both moving and understated, revealing all the viewer needs to know about the man seen cutting the heads off of parking meters at the start of the film. These 5 pages of the draft expose the conflict in Luke, a man who simultaneously feels the need to follow his mother’s way of life-“free and aboveboard”- but also the burden of expectation that comes with that mother’s love.

CoolHandLuke_60 CoolHandLuke_61 CoolHandLuke_62 CoolHandLuke_63 CoolHandLuke_64


Here’s the deal: Throughout 2014, we’re posting pages from every script on the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays, as chosen by Guild membership, because we have every one in our library. Sure, we have other scripts that didn’t make it onto the list, either because they didn’t make the cut or because they were produced after the list was generated (presumably SHARKNADO, which we totally have a copy of, is only in the latter category).