A Failure to Communicate

Paul Greenberg

9/23/2010 4:30:19 PM - Paul Greenberg

Dear Movie Fan,

Thank you so much for your e-mail "pointing out" that the oft-cited quote I attributed to Cool Hand Luke in the movie by that name ("What we've got here is a failure to communicate") is actually spoken by the camp captain played by Strother Martin.

Sir, your name is Legion. I must have received almost as many letters, e-mails and phone calls making the same point as the time I attributed another of my favorite lines ("One never knows, do one?") to the wrong Fats -- Domino instead of Waller. I couldn't get that embarrassing error corrected soon enough. I'll never get my Fatses confused again.

In this instance, however, it is wholly a pleasure, not to say shameful satisfaction, to note that the line in question is actually spoken twice in the movie -- though with a slight variation when it's pronounced at the end by Paul Newman, that handsome rascal and maker of the world's best oil-and-vinegar salad dressing.

Being the stickler for grammar that he is, Cool Hand Luke uses the indefinite article when he recites it at the end as his farewell address: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

It's Luke's swan song just before he's cut down by the posse that's pursued him to the country church where he's made a last appeal to his Maker.

The line has entered the American idiom and, like all noteworthy literary contributions, is not only widely used but has spawned playful adaptations, as when a character in a much less memorable film, "Ernest Saves Christmas," tells Santa: "What we've got here is a failure to accumulate."

Any reference to a failure to communicate would naturally stick in the mind of a newspaper columnist, who would well know the feeling. In my case it's an occupational hazard.

But I don't recall that line as often as something an Army captain once said in the course of critiquing a training mission at a dusty ROTC summer camp long ago:

"And that's when Cadet Greenberg made his fatal error."

Since then I've had regular occasion to recollect that summary judgment on my job performance.

But as I've grown older, the line that occurs to me most often comes from HAL 9000, the on-board computer who's the most human character in "2001: A Space Odyssey":

"Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it."

But I want to assure you, dear Movie Fan, that I am completely operational, and all my circuits are functioning perfectly. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do. I know everything hasn't been quite right with me, but I can assure you now, very confidently, that it's going to be all right again. I feel much better now. I really do. I may have made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you....

With best wishes from another movie fan who can't seem to get a lot of old dialogue out of his ever more crowded attic of a mind,

Inky Wretch