Sunday, March 12, 2017

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This 1975 Milos Foreman directed movie is one of only three films to win Oscars for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. The other ones were It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs. It is definitely not a romantic comedy like the former, but, even though not as scary as the latter, it is very disturbing in the reality it creates.
The motion picture is based on the novel by Ken Kesey, which was inspired by his experiences with veterans at a VA medical center. The author was not at all happy with the adaptation. One of the reasons for his dissatisfaction is that Foreman did not want to tell the story from the viewpoint of Chief Bromden, as does the book. Foreman’s work presents more of a detached documentary feel, with observation shots of people interacting, without many closes-ups or artistic camera movement. To add to the realistic presentation, some actual patients were used as extras. To eliminate a rehearsed look, Foreman used improvisation. In the scene when the main character first arrives at the psychiatric facility, McMurphy’s (Jack Nicholson) slamming the stapler on Dr. Spivey’s desk (Dean R. Brooks) was improvised. When McMurphy leaps on a guard and kisses him, the actor playing the guard was surprised, not knowing that Nicholson was going to jump on him.
The movie addresses the theme of the individual’s place in society. How much can a person indulge his own freedom and how far can society be allowed to restrict one of its member’s actions without resorting to tyranny? The opening shot shows a car taking Randall McMurphy to the mental hospital from a prison. We see a beautiful Oregon landscape accompanied by a mystical, Native American sounding score. The openness and absence of other people then contrasts with the next shot of a closed-in mental ward with grated locked doors. McMurphy hopes he can serve out the rest of his term away from the harshness of a penal institution in the mental hospital. He arrives in handcuffs, because he is a prisoner, but the scene symbolically shows how society shackles those it considers to act in any deviant manner. McMurphy shows unconventional behavior, as was noted above, by kissing a guard, and laughing out loud. Dr. Spivey tells McMurphy that it must be determined if he has a genuine psychiatric condition. His criminal record shows that he has been arrested five times for assault. To which, McMurphy says a prize fighter does the same thing and gets rich for his hitting someone else. Of course, it isn’t the same thing, but the point is that society does tolerate, and, in fact, encourages aggression under certain circumstances. He also was found to be belligerent, had a bad attitude, and participated in “unauthorized talking.” The thrust here is that the rules don’t allow for anyone to rock the boat, not matter the severity of the infraction. McMurphy is serving a stretch for sex with a minor. She was fifteen, but he says she said she was eighteen, and appeared and acted much older. Laws are there to protect the innocent, but he implies that they may over-generalize as to who is innocent. McMurphy says he really has been incarcerated for fighting and having sex too much, meaning excess self-indulgence will not be tolerated. He tells Dr. Spivey that he was called crazy because “I don’t sit there like a goddamn vegetable … If that’s what being crazy is, then I’m senseless, out of it, gone-down-the-road, wacko.” (The word “vegetable” turns out to be a foreshadowing of the ending). He basically is saying that he is being called psychologically impaired for not stifling what he thinks makes him human, his passion and exuberance.
The mental ward encourages a “vegetable” existence. Elevator, mind-numbing music is piped into the space, and tranquilizing medications are dispensed by the aptly named Nurse Pilbow (Mimi Sarkisian). This section of the hospital is run by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). You can have a lot of fun playing with that name. It sounds like “hatchet,” and “rat head,” both threatening allusions. It also resembles “ratchet,” which the dictionary says means a device, with teeth, that allows motion in one direction. She truly believes that she is there to help the patients, but only through unswerving conformity to her rigid rules. To deal with problems her advice is, “The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine.” Fletcher is scary with her condescendingly unwavering sweet voice which can contrast with piercing looks and an unemotional, robot-like presence. She only shows anger when her will is not obeyed. Her swept-up hair style suggests an old-fashioned look, possibly implying a resistance to change. Fletcher said that she looks like she has devil horns.

Why are the patients there? Some are obviously mentally disturbed. But there are others that seem to be able to function. Martini (Danny DeVito) has a constant smile on his face, and likes to repeat words.  Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) has facial tics and emotional outbursts. Harding is overly jealous of his wife because of his own insecurity, and uses pretentious language to compensate. Taber (Christopher Lloyd) seems to have an explosive temper, but he hurts nobody. Billy (Brad Dourif) stutters, is intimidated by his mother, and attempted suicide in the past because of rejection by a girl, again probably due to feelings of insecurity due to the speech impediment. The Chief (Will Sampson), supposedly, is deaf and can’t speak. Most of their problems are not psychiatric, per se, but mostly derive from being social outcasts, not fitting into the mainstream. The last two could be considered outsiders because of physical afflictions, and the Chief may be discriminated against just because he is a Native American. In a way, they are all like McMurphy by being people who do not fit in with what society considers to be “normal.” We discover later that many of the men have voluntarily committed themselves, which McMurphy finds outrageous, probably because they have been ostracized by society and made to feel inadequate because of their deviance from the behavioral norm. At one point Ratched says that a patient not wanting to be social is unhealthy. Another patient then questions, “So, it’s sick to be off by yourself?” This exchange epitomizes the conflict between society and the individual, who is judged as “ill” if he wants to not go with the herd, and be in that wilderness at the beginning of the film, alone. McMurphy berates the others for not leaving, telling them that they just don’t have “the guts” to walk out, and defy the judgment of the outside world. He basically provides the theme of the movie when he says to them, “You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets.” The others on the outside just appear normal by not questioning the ruling establishment.

The film is loaded with references to game playing and sports. McMurphy gets the Chief to play basketball, as well as the other patients. They play cards, monopoly, and assemble puzzles. McMurphy hijacks a bus and takes the above-named patients on a fishing expedition. In a satirical move, he says that they are all doctors from the mental institution who chartered the boat. The implication is that the actual physicians may be the ones who should be locked up for imposing unfair restrictions with their assessments. The outing is a happy one, where Cheswick overcomes his fear of piloting the boat, and helps catch a huge fish. In a way, McMurphy’s liberating spirit empowers the others. He takes a bet (another game) that he can rattle Ratched in a week, and he does things like questioning the pill taking (spitting his out), entering the nurses’ station, which is forbidden territory, and demanding that the elevator music be turned down. He also bets that he can lift up the marble hydrotherapy fountain and throw it through the window, allowing him to escape. He can’t do it, of course, but he shows that he had the guts, and says at least “I tried,” as opposed to the passiveness of the other patients. However, McMurphy is no steadfast hero here. Sports and games have rules, and he is frustrated when the other patients don’t play by them, wanting to adhere to restrictions like Ratched, to avoid chaos. He is judgmental of Martini when the man breaks cigarettes in half so that each represents a nickel bet in a card game. McMurphy selfishly wants to exploit the others out of cigarettes so he can smoke them, and also wants to swindle them playing poker to get their cash. He becomes short-tempered when they don’t obey the rules while playing basketball.

An important scene revolves around another game, baseball. McMurphy wants to watch the World Series on television. But, that would mean changing the work schedule. Of course, Ratched is resistant. McMurphy says, “A little change never hurt anything, a little variety.” This attitude is contrary to Ratched’s nature. But, she says she will have a democratic vote, hoping that her intimidation will prevail. When it the vote doesn’t go in her favor, she includes all of the ward as part of the electorate, even those who are unresponsive to communication. The results turn out to be nine against nine, and Ratched says the majority didn’t want a change. She adjourns the meeting, but McMurphy gets the Chief to raise his arm, voting for the altered work schedule. Ratched shuts McMurphy down, saying the meeting was adjourned, so the Chief’s vote didn’t count. But, McMurphy pretends that he is calling the play-by-play of the World Series game, and the others participate, showing how imagination can overcome tyranny. Later, to Dr. Spivey, McMurphy says Ratched likes to play “a rigged game,” where she can arbitrarily change the rules to maintain her control.

Ratched can’t tolerate any action that questions her authority. She criticizes McMurphy when he touches the nurses’ station barrier, thus symbolizing his desire to breach the fortress of her authority. She tells him, “you’re staining the glass,” as if his ways are a threat to her pristine superiority. At one of the group therapy meetings, Cheswick takes up the fight against authority when he questions the lack of cigarette distribution. Ratched says that they were losing their cigarettes and money to McMurphy in the tub room, so she placed restrictions on the cigarettes and time in the room. Martini makes a logical counterargument by saying how, then, will they be able to win back their losses? But, because of his quirks, his remarks are not given any validity. Then, Cheswick continues to question Ratched, eventually telling her, “Piss on your fucking rules!” At first McMurphy’s selfishness dismisses Cheswick’s demands, but then he goes beyond just staining Ratched’s glass; he smashes it and grabs cigarettes for Cheswick. Then, a lit cigarette winds up in Taber’s pants cuff. He, understandably, is alarmed, and begins to yell, shaking his foot. This is a normal response, but because he has been prejudged to be a deviant, the staff assumes he is having a psychotic fit, and manhandle him. This event drives home the unfairness of the mindset running the institution. The guards are basically hired thugs, and drag McMurphy to the ground after his braking of the glass. The Chief pulls a guard off of McMurphy, and he, the Chief and Cheswick are put in restraints.
While waiting on a bench after Cheswick is brought in for treatment, the Chief says thanks after McMurphy gives him a stick of gum, happy that it’s “Juicy Fruit.” McMurphy is thrilled to learn that the Chief has been faking the whole time, and they plan on escaping to Canada. McMurphy is taken in to receive electroshock therapy. It is a frightening scene, where he does not know what is happening to him. He is held down and a bite guard thrust into his mouth. His body jerks in a type of seizure as the electricity shoots through his temples. Since McMurphy is not mentally ill, this is a violation of the medical precept, “to do no harm,” showing how overreaching power subverts the rules made to protect individuals. After he returns to the ward, he pretends to shuffle in a zombie-like way, but is only joking (however, this is another foreshadowing).

McMurphy has learned that he can’t just wait out his sentence on the ward, but that the institution can hold him there indefinitely. He plans to break out, but the Chief is reluctant. He talks about his father, a big man like himself, who “did like he pleased.” But, this extreme individuality ran up against society’s restraints, and “everybody worked on him.” He was worn down, and alcoholism destroyed him. And now, “they”, that is those in charge, are “working on” McMurphy. The Chief doesn’t, at this point, feel strong enough to be as defiant as McMurphy. The latter waits until Ratched goes home at night, and the only person left on the ward is the night attendant, Turkle (Scatman Crothers), who he bribes. He calls two girls who bring alcohol, and McMurphy treats the patients to a wild, liberating party. It should be noted that although there is a great deal of fun to be had, there is also destruction of property, which points to the need for the restraints of some rules, and that all of the whims of the individual cannot be indulged, or society will break down. Billy takes a liking to one of the women, Candy (Mews Small), and McMurphy delays his escape by asking her to have sex with the youth, to build up his self-confidence. But, while waiting for the two to make love, alcohol is consumed, and everyone falls asleep, including McMurphy and the Chief, who has now decided to run away with his new friend. They are still there when the daytime staff arrives. Ratched finds Billy with Candy, and then, instead of understanding the boy’s youthful impulses and past history of suicidal attempts, makes matters worse by shaming him, and threatening reprisal by telling his mother. As the staff begins to deal with the situation, one of the nurses finds that Billy slit his throat with broken glass resulting from the night’s festivities. Instead of using the diversion to escape, McMurphy is enraged by the boy’s death, and attempts to strangle Ratched. One of the orderlies knocks him out.

The next scene shows the ward is again operating in an orderly, “normal” fashion. However, we hear the news in the background about the Berlin Wall and racial tension, so what happens in the outside world does not appear to be saner than what occurs inside the psychiatric hospital. There are rumors about McMurphy. One says he has escaped. Another says he is still there. The medical staff decided that McMurphy was “dangerous,” but that he was not mentally ill. Given that impression, they should have no jurisdiction over him, since his case is solely a legal one. Instead, orderlies wheel in McMurphy back to the ward at night. The Chief quietly goes to him and says he knew he wouldn’t leave without him, and now he feels strong enough to escape. McMurphy’s body is limp, and the Chief then sees the lobotomy scars on his forehead. The Chief says, “I’m not goin’ without you, Mac. I wouldn’t leave you this way. You’re coming with me.” He then smothers the body of the man whose soul was already dead. In a way, he takes McMurphy’s spirit with him, as he accomplishes what McMurphy tried to do – he picks up the marble fountain and throws it through the window, breaking the barrier that symbolizes the suppression of freedom. Taber wakes up and yells, “He made it,” the “He” meaning McMurphy’s essence, in the form of the Chief, who runs off into that beautiful unrestricted aloneness of the wilderness we saw at the beginning of the film, accompanied again by the mystical Native American music.

When McMurphy “teaches” the Chief about basketball, he has him raise his arms upward to grasp and toss the ball above him into the net. He also uses the height of the Native American to scale the fence around the mental hospital to commandeer the bus for their fishing outing. McMurphy has the Chief raise his hand to change the work schedule. At the end, the Chief picks up the heavy marble fountain, which symbolizes the weight of those constraints that prevent individual empowerment, and carries it above his head, showing the strength needed to toss that heft away. One needs to rise to the occasion, transcend boundaries, to fly over life’s cuckoo’s nest.

The next film is The Seventh Seal.


  1. nice post, keep up with this interesting work. It really is good to know that this topic is being covered also on this web site so cheers for taking time to discuss this!

  2. Thanks for your comments. Nice to hear feedback.


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