One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of only 3 films to have ever won the 5 main Academy Awards (the other two being It Happened One Night and Silence of the Lambs); with Jack Nicholson’s performance in the film recently being named the greatest movie performance of all time by Total Film Magazine.
And the film is definitely beautifully acted not only by Nicholson but there are also great performances by Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched and by those in the smaller supporting roles such as William Redfield who plays fellow patient Dale Harding.
Set in 1963, the film centres on Nicholson’s character, R.P. McMurphy, a 38-year old convict with a very healthy or unhealthy (depending on your point of view) disrespect of authority. In prison for statutory rape of a 15-year old, McMurphy is sent over from the work farm to be evaluated in the state mental institution to determine whether or not he is mentally ill. The authorities suspect that he’s not crazy at all but has just been faking mental illness in order to get out of his work detail. McMurphy admits he’s a man who likes to fight and fuck too much and has already been arrested five times for assault. Asked whether he’s crazy or not by the doctor in charge, Dr. Spivey (another great performance this time by Dean R. Brooks) McMurphy admits that perhaps he is crazy because he doesn’t sit there like a god damn vegetable like the others.
McMurphy is placed on a ward which is run with iron-grip authority and understated sadism by Nurse Ratched. It’s a chilling performance by Louise Fletcher. From the beginning McMurphy sets about undermining her authority as is seen in the very first group session that McMurphy attends. Nurse Ratched uses these sessions to humiliate and control her patients, pressing them to admit personal information she can then use against them. At the session McMurphy starts playing with a pack of cards to interrupt proceedings. McMurphy can see that Nurse Ratched knows exactly how to press just the right buttons to set her patients off and McMurphy can see right through her.
In contrast to the hospital staff who invariably desist from treating the patients as individuals and who seem content to numb their patients’ lives with medication, unflinching routine and a continuous bombardment of music so that they can’t even hear themselves think, McMurphy tries to get through to his fellow patients and treats them as normal human beings. McMurphy also has no qualms in questioning authority or trying to shake things up such as when he asks Nurse Ratched to turn down the music or refuses to take his medication. McMurphy is the type of person authority hates. He has a mind of his own, he’s intelligent, quick witted and determinedly individual.
McMurphy bets his fellow inmates he can wind up Nurse Ratched. However, Nurse Ratched proves an implacable enemy. McMurphy asks to change the work detail so the inmates can watch the World Series. Nurse Ratched is having none of it. She suggests they put it to the vote and go by the adage majority rules knowing full well that most of the fellow inmates are too scared to vote yes despite wanting the change. In the end, she is proved right with only Cheswick, Taber and McMurphy putting their hands up. Nurse Ratched can hardly supress a sense of triumph from spreading across her impenetrable face. This scene is a microcosm of society where the majority don’t rule because they are too scared to fight for what they really want.
Later on, McMurphy bets he can lift a huge bathroom fitting and throw it through the window and escape into town to watch the World Series. The others bet against him and McMurphy tires and fails to lift the fitting. When asked, if he is giving up, he replies: “No, just warming up.” That is what makes McMurphy so different and likewise so dangerous to the authorities: As he himself puts it: “but I tried, didn’t I, goddammit, at least, I did that.”
McMurphy begins to influence the others and he is clearly a catalyst for change. This is seen not only in the fact that Chief Bromden starts playing basketball but also happily starts cheating at it. This change in their general attitude – and which threatens the very fabric of Nurse Ratched’s control over the ward – can also be seen the next time the patients vote as to whether they can change the schedule in order to watch the World Series. This time all 9 of the session attendees vote to watch the baseball. As McMurphy rightly points out watching the World Series is good therapy too. This undermining of her authority is clearly getting under Nurse Ratched’s skin, unaccustomed as she is to this happening. And like most people in authority, Nurse Ratched changes the rules once the current ones aren’t working in her favour. Or as McMurphy more prosaically puts it: “She likes a rigged game.”
Despite the patients now having a clear majority this time round, Nurse Ratched insists that all the other patients on the ward have to be taken into account despite the fact most of the other patients are non-compos mentis. As a result, the patients are still one vote short until the apparent deaf and dumb Native American patient, Chief Bromden puts his hand up. But to no avail. Nurse Ratched has adjourned the meeting, closed the vote and refuses to put on the TV. But McMurphy proves he can be just as implacable. Staring at a blank TV screen, he pretends he’s watching the game anyway and provides the commentary, much to the amusement of the other patients and to the great annoyance of Nurse Ratched – her face is a picture – and the scene is a great example of the human spirit resisting unbending authority bent on grinding it down.
McMurphy then goes on to steal a bus and takes his fellow patients deep sea fishing. As he says whilst breaking out: “we’ll show these guys who’s nuts”. In contrast to their numbed out lives on the ward, thanks to McMurphy they are actually on an adventure experiencing life and being treated as normal, everyday people.
In the four weeks McMurphy has been there the doctors conclude he hasn’t shown any evidence of mental illness. They consider him dangerous but not crazy and want to send him back to the Pendleton work farm. This is where Nurse Ratched steps in and insists they keep him on the ward under the pretence that she can help him. The reason why she’s so keen that he stays where he is becomes evident when McMurphy later finds out that unlike jail, where in theory he would have 68 days left till he’s released, the state mental institution can keep him there indefinitely or until they decide he can go.
When McMurphy learns of this he’s furious that the others have let him hassle Nurse Ratched and not tell him how much he had to lose by doing so. This is when he learns that unlike him, Chief Bromden and Taper, most of the other patients are there voluntarily and that hardly any of them have been committed and are therefore at liberty to leave anytime they want. Again this epitomises the human condition – people staying locked into an unhappy situation refusing to have the courage to free themselves from it. As McMurphy points out they do nothing but complain yet they don’t walk out thereby acquiescing to remain where they are despite, according to McMurphy, being no more crazy than the average person on the street.
As Nurse Ratched’s authority starts to be questioned by the other patients, her steely exterior begins to get rattled. She raises her voice on being confronted by Cheswick as to her refusal to dole out their cigarettes. The group is now standing up for each other as can be seen when McMurphy grabs the cigarettes for Cheswick from the nurses’ station and Chief Bromden comes to McMurphy’s help in the fight with the warders that follows this. This show of solidarity is soon punished by the authorities when all three are sent off for electric shock treatment. While awaiting “treatment”, McMurphy finds out that Chief Bromden is neither deaf nor dumb. Like McMurphy, the Chief has also been standing up against the powers-to-be but in a far more subtle way. Maybe that’s why in the end it is Chief Bromden who manages to escape.
On returning to the ward, McMurphy pretends to be lobotomised unknowingly foretelling what will eventually happen to him. Having now been at the institute a couple of months, McMurphy can’t take it any longer and askes the Chief to escape with him. The Chief however feels he can’t. Despite his stature he feels he’s not “big enough”. McMurphy replies: “It’s a lot easier than you think.” The Chief tells McMurphy: “You’re a lot bigger than me.” and explains that’s the reason why they’re working on McMurphy the way they are.
When McMurphy is finally about to escape, his humanity and sense of friendship gets the better of him. He realises that the stuttering, shy young Billy is upset. Why don’t you come with me? he asks. Do you think I don’t want to? Billy replies. As with the Chief, Billy feels it’s not that easy and that he’s not ready yet. McMurphy promises to send him a postcard when he gets to Canada so he knows where to join him. McMurphy then makes a fatal error and decides to postpone his escape to allow Billy to pop his cherry with his party girl friend, Candy, who has been smuggled in along with a friend into the hospital by McMurphy. However instead of then escaping, McMurphy falls asleep only to awaken when the nurses enter the next morning. Controlled anger is etched on Nurse Ratched’s face at the chaos she sees before her. Questioning Billy on finding him in bed with Candy, Billy for once stops stuttering and is unabashed at what has happened. Even he has finally stood up to Nurse Ratched. But this changes as soon as she coldly tells him she will have to tell his mother about what has happened. Immediately he returns to the Billy of old and starts stuttering again and freaking out. Placed in the doctor’s office, he kills himself in desperation and fear. McMurphy again doesn’t take the escape option but goes to check what has happened to his friend. On seeing the dead body of Billy, he tries to strangle Nurse Ratched and is only stopped from killing her by one of the warders who knocks him out.
The final scenes show the inmates playing the card game that McMurphy has taught them. Their lives have become enriched by knowing him and in the process he has become their hero. One night McMurphy is returned to the ward. Chief Bromden is now ready to escape. Thanks to McMurphy he feels as big as 10 men. It’s then that he realises that McMurphy has been lobotomised. Chief Bromden kills McMurphy to free him from his lobotomised state just as he is freeing himself from the hospital. As he says, he is not going without him and wouldn’t leave him there this way. “You’re coming with me.” he tells him. Chief Bromden then carries on where McMurphy has left off. He picks up the bathroom fitting that McMurphy had unsuccessfully tried to lift weeks earlier, and throws it through the window and escapes.
The film is a hymn to the human spirit even though the moral of the story would seem to be that when pitched against authority, authority will use any means at its disposal to win and invariably will succeed. The fact that Chief Bromden is able to escape offers a glimmer of hope and shows that maybe more underhand ways are needed for the individual to gain the upper hand. The film also puts into sharp focus the chains we, as individuals, involuntarily imprison ourselves with in our daily lives – whether it’s an unhealthy relationship, a mind-numbing job or harmful modes of behaviour. Most of us are fortunate enough to be able to find a way out of these situations if we choose to but how many of us have the guts to actually do so? How many of us have listened to friends bemoan a relationship / a job, then offer advice which has been studiously ignored only to hear the same complaints again and again? At the same time forgetting that we do precisely the same thing. Perhaps we should take a note out of McMurphy’s book and at least try and remember that as a rule : “It’s a lot easier than you think.”
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