Lucas Jackson is a returned war hero with an attitude. He's drifting through life with no purpose of direction. One morning finds him a little drunk and cutting the heads off parking meters. In the South, that's called, "damaging municipal property" and it's a chain gang offense. Hero, soldier, Lucas Jackson finds himself face to face with "the man."
Paul Newman's starring role as Luke is a study in rebellion against the boundaries of society and a mirror of 60's thought. His portrayal is laid back and understated, just playin' it cool, as he comments to one of his fellow inmates, "Sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand."
There is a hierarchy among men, free or otherwise, a pecking order, if you will, and Luke, like all before and after him, must fight for his place among the ranks of his peers. His command of social skills is obvious.
He lays back, observes,in the beginning, sometimes commenting without overt intrusion on the scheme of daily life in the prison camp.
"You call the Captain, Captain. You call the rest of us Boss." Advises the orientation speaker who greets Luke and the other "new meat" arrivals.
The warden is played to stereotypical perfection by the late great character actor, Strother Martin. He's genuinely perplexed by Luke's status as a decorated hero, and bemused by the irreverence of his crime, noting, "We never had one of 'them' before."
Luke next hears from Carr, the trustee, who delivers a litany of rules, each punishable by "a night in the box." Carr offers a classical bit of foreshadowing, saying, "You ain't going to be a hard case, are you?" He senses Luke's contempt for the structure of the camp.
Luke replies, "Not me, 'boss' " deliberately conferring that title undeservedly onto the beleaguered...