The thing about some classics is that sometimes when a modern viewer watches them for the first time, he wonders what the ballyhoo is all about. Mostly, in these cases, the environment and the people and the circumstances depicted has been refined and improved and given more depth in movies that have come later. So, a better way to review the movie would be to put it in the context of the time it was made.
The movie is about a man – Luke, who is imprisoned but simply refuses to allow anyone to dominate him or dictate any rules to him. He is firmly anti-establishment, a positioning that gives the movie much of its popularity and fame. It went down well at a time when people were openly defying authority at every level (late 1960s). Luke is shown to be an ordinary guy but with huge amount of attitude (the boxing match, where he keeps on getting up no matter how many times he is floored is emblematic of this).
His stubbornness in seeing the ‘practical’ side of things is what gives the character much of its flesh. Beat him, threaten him, torture him – he would do what he has to do.
Luke’s character and his relationship with other prisoners is the crux of the movie. He does not perform any ‘earth shaking’ (a term that is understood when one sees the movie) event but he does not intend to. He just wants to be independent in all ways. And that is something that the ‘establishment’ can neither understand nor tolerate. And he pay the price for this – the famous line ‘what we have here is a failure to communicate’ comes to pass. But even at the end, he defies defeat by giving his crooked signature smile.
This is a movie that for all its ‘simplicity’ (for the modern discerning viewer) still sends out a strong message – a message for the unconscious rebel in the society, a rebel who is looking for only personal revolution.
A movie that is to be enjoyed in the context of its time and a movie to be enjoyed for the pure joy of seeing Paul Newman in all his glory on the screen!