Film #52 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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The 1970s were a time of change and mistrust in America. A newfound environmental movement, women’s right’s activists, and the antiwar movement brought about new changes in America while the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War brought Nixon to resign and bred a new cynicism toward politics in America. Young people began to do as they pleased to the chagrin of the “New Right”; they broke traditional norms by doing drugs, having sex, and focused more on themselves creating a profoundly personal movement.
Milo’s Foreman had directed multiple TV documentaries and films in the 1960s before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), but this was his first film that was adapted from a novel. The novel, by Ken Kensy, was a cult favorite and was particularly lauded by the counterculture and youth of the 1970s who praised it for the anti-establishment themes.
Randle P. McMurphy, a repeat offender, is sent to the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton in 1963 after pleading insanity to escape working on a prison farm. Although he is not actually mentally ill, McMurphy hopes to serve his sentence as relaxing as possible.
After arriving at the institution, McMurphy begins to rebel against the head nurse, Mildred Ratched, an oppressive woman who passive aggressively emasculates and abuses the other patients in order to suppress them and feed her power trip. McMurphy’s taunt and scheme’s include setting up a gambling ring with the other patients, setting up multiple votes to watch the World Series on TV, and stealing a bus to take the other patients fishing. These acts of protest begin to bring the other patients out of their shells, weakening Nurse Ratched’s authority. However, it’s only after thoroughly hassling Nurse Ratched that McMurphy learns that he is a “committed” patient, and can only be released from the institution with Nurse Ratched’s permission.
It’s fascinating to consider that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is at once a drama and comedy; while the film is full of comedic moments, the overall tone shifts between bittersweet cynicism and pointed critique on such themes as the dangers of conforming to the establishment, the exploitation of individual repressions in order to suppress people, and the mistreatment of people with mental illness. To quote Roger Ebert, “about the inmate revolt led by McMurphy, and the fishing trip, the all-night orgy, and his defiance of Nurse Ratched (Fletcher)–but in fact it is about McMurphy’s defeat.” (Ebert, 2003).
It’s this balancing act between the darkness and light that makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) such a captivating watch to this day. Much of this balance is found in the character of McMurphy, a charismatic bringer of vice who is incarcerated for the rape of a 15-year-old girl. At first, McMurphy is childish and self-serving, only interested in playing games. He enters the institution like a Bugs Bunny, hollering and kissing the police officer, acting out what he perceives mental illness to be. He uses the other patients for his own amusement, riding on top of one of them around the basketball court and manipulating them with nude cards and gambling. To him, the institution is his playground and his sentence is just a holiday. His initial fight with Nurse Ratched is born from a bet to see how fast he can get under her skin.
But McMurphy’s character flaws unintentionally breed salvation to the other patients by giving them the one thing Nurse Ratched took; choice. The choice to watch the World Series, to fish, to drink, to have sex, and ultimately to decide when they want to leave. In contrast, Nurse Ratched gains her power by taking away choice through rules; keep on schedule, take your medication. She de-humanizes the patients to gain absolute control. In their first encounter, Nurse Ratched doesn’t even bother to look up at McMurphy because he is just another number for her clipboard; one t-shirt, a pair of socks. The battle of wills between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched comes down to this for me; if the warden of the institution can experience the joy of catching a fish at the beginning of the film, why is it considered criminal when the patients experience the same joy later?
There are a few critiques often levied toward this film. One of the most common is its simplistic view of mental illness as so easily curable. While credible, I believe it misses the point Foreman is trying to make; it’s not about a realistic representation of mental illness, it’s about the fight to free when oppressed, and that it’s better to have fought for the ability to make choices than to never have fought at all. It is also noted that the film is manipulative (much like it’s main characters), but for me Foreman’s craft is so effective and masterful that I allow myself to be manipulated by it to fully experience it.
The shift in McMurphy’s character happens near the end of the film, when “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson) tells him the story of his father and how he was never destroyed but simply “worked on” by the establishment until it broke him, and that the institution has been doing the exact same thing to McMurphy. Up until this point, McMurphy had never realized the true weight of the “games” he had been playing, and it is here that he stops playing altogether. The patients have ceased being his pawns, and through their adventures together have become his friends. Earlier, he criticizes the doctors perceptions of mental illness, asking them if “taking a shit of the floor” is what they think mental illness looks like. It only makes sense that the first selfless act he makes, to help Billy (Brad Dourif) sleep with Candy (Mews Small), leads to his tragedy. But he knows it, and in a long shot that lingers on his face we see him slowly smile at the precipice of his inevitable doom. This last balance before he falls into the darkness completely, to me, is remembering all the fun and humor from the beginning of the film, and the realization that if given another chance he would have chose to do it the exact same way all over again. And its this value he holds until the very end that gives Chief and the final patients the courage to choose, ending the film in a way which I can only describe as the perfect bittersweet release.
The late Milos Foreman, born in Czechoslovakia in 1932, lost both his parents to the Nazis during WWII; his mother at Auschwitz and his father at Buchenwald. He grew up in a communist regime and fled to the United States in the summer of 1968, when his country was invaded by the troops of the Warsaw pact. He was a director who was intimately familiar with the dangers of conforming to establishments and the value of freedom and choice. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is a beautiful adaptation that shows the value of never giving in, fighting for choice even if one ultimately loses, and living first and foremost for ones self above all else. It’s a wonderful film that definitely warrants a viewing.
Three geese in a flock.
One flew east, one flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
O-U-T spells OUT,
Goose swoops down and plucks you out.
Trivia and Facts
The second to only three films to win Oscars in all five major categories; Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay (Adapted Original). The other two films are “It Happened One Night” (Dir. Frank Capra, 1934) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (Dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)
This is Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, and Will Sampson’s film debuts, as well as Michael Douglas’ producing debut.
Many of the extras in the film were authentic mental patients.
- “AFI CATALOG OF FEATURE FILMS.” AFI|Catalog, catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/55189.
- Ebert, Roger. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Movie Review (1975) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com, Saul Zaentz, 2 Feb. 2003, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-1975.
- History.com Staff. “The 1970s.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/1970s.
- “Trivia.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0073486/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv.