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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

February 21, 2012
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest  was one of the 3 movies that took all the Big 5 awards-Picture,Actor, Director, Actress, Screenplay. A bitter sweet tale set in the backdrop of a lunatic asylum, One Flew.. todate remains one of my personal favorites.  
The 60’s  and  70’s  was the age of  counter culture, rebellion against authority,  and  a sort of  insistence on human rights, freedom.  As people  rebelled  against  existing attitudes and beliefs,  a new breed of  movie makers,  began to take their place under the sun.  Movie makers  influenced  by  the  European New Wave and  counter culture  ideals,  thus  began to translate their ideas into movies.  Movies that were not  big budget,  huge canvas affairs,  but more personal stories,  more  grittier, more realistic.   This  was the era of directors  like  Martin Scorcese,  Francis Ford Copolla, Robert Altman whose created a new grammar of  movie making.   It  was also the age  of   Robert De Niro,  Al  Pacino,  Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson.  Through their movies,  they expressed their angst against society, and their desire for  individual freedom.  One  Flew Over The Cuckoo’s  Nest  is one such movie,  that dealt with individual  rebellion against  an oppresive system.

Based on a novel by Ken Kesey,  it  was first  dramatized by  Broadway in 1963   with Kirk Douglas starring in lead role.  He also bought the movie rights,  however  none of  the studios  were interested  in the subject,  as they felt it did not have much commercial value.  Later on  Kirk’s  son,  Michael Douglas  co produced the movie along with Saul Zentz.  Milos  Forman,  the director of the movie,  however was still not a big name in Hollywood,  nor  was he one of the 70’s movie brats.  He however  had made a reputation for himself in his native Czechoslovakia,  with  many Czech movies,  and  after the aborted  Prague Spring  of  1968,  he fled to US.   Jack Nicholson,  by  then had already made a name for  himself   in cult  classics  like  Easy Rider, a tale of two bored young men  who take a road trip around US  and  5  Easy Pieces, a movie about  a  person who  flees his privileged, upper class background,  to lead the life of a  roughneck  oil rigger.  Both these movies,  had established  Jack  as one of  the 70’s  rebels,  along with others  like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. 

The movie begins  with  Randle Mc Murphy( Jack Nicholson),  being escorted  into a mental  institution in Oregon,  which is supervised by  a stern,  dictatorial  matron,  Nurse Ratched( Louise McFletcher).   Murphy has been placed in the asylum, due to his rebellious nature at the prison  camp,  where he has been serving  his sentence.  The prison authorities  feel   that  Murphy  deliberately  feigned insanity to escape from the  prison.   And  at  this  time  Murphy  gets  to meet his ward  inmates

Chief Bromden, aka Broom( Will Sampson)– Of   Red  Indian origin,  he is deaf n dumb, silent and literally towers over every one, with his imposing physique.

Billy  Bibbit( Brad Dourif)– a shy, stuttering individual,  who has been affected due to his Mother’s  domination.

Dale Harding( William Redfield)– a soft spoken,  intellectual, but  his wife’s  adultery and betrayal, left him deeply affected.

Charlie Cheswick( Sydney Lassik)– a  neurotic  with no self  confidence

Martini( Danny De Vito)– an utterly  immature  person.

Taber( Christopher Lloyd)–  a trouble maker, and a sadist.

The biggest  problem  Murphy has  however  is  with the domineering  Nurse Ratched  who supervises his ward.   Ratched  loves to  dominate  and  pyschologically  emasculate  the patients, making them feel worthless.   Murphy  goes  about  trying to brighten  the  otherwise dark,  and depressing  environment  of  the  ward,  by  getting the inmates involved in basketball  and also card games like poker,  blackjack.   Murphy proves  to be  a prickly thorn  for  Nurse Ratched,  questioning  the rules and regulations,  refusing to follow  her. He tries  to forment  a rebellion, by  getting  the patients  on to  his side.

Nurse  Ratched is  however  unwilling to let  go of  her authority,  and  she  keeps thwarting  Murphy’s  mind games at every stage.   It becomes  a  battle between Murphy  and Ratched,  both  of them  giving no quarter.   The doctors  feel  that  Murphy  is putting on a charade,  and when he  manages  to sneak  out  the inmates for an outdoor trip, before being caught again,  he is regarded  as “dangerous”,  but not insane however.  Nurse  Ratched  however is not willing to let  Murphy leave the place,  as she  wants to break him down fully.

One  Flew Over The Cuckoo’s  Nest,   addresses the age old  conflict  of   individual  vs an  oppresive system.   Forman  was a witness to the Prague Spring  and  he  himself  was a victim  of  censorship.   The  asylum  could as well  have been the metaphor for Soviet Russia,   which had brutally crushed  the uprisings  in  Hungary(1956)  and Czechoslovakia(1968).  Nurse  Ratched’s  tactics  in many ways,  are eerily  reminiscient of  the mind  control techniques  used  by  KGB ,  Stasi  to brain wash dissidents  and torture them  mentally.   Also  the Soviet system  was notorious  for sending  dissidents  to asylums,  where they were locked up forever.

The  asylum becomes a battleground between Murphy and  Ratched,  as both try to establish their authority.   For  starters Murphy,  never thinks he is sane,  as he says

    I’m a god-damn marvel of modern science

He   constantly  questions  her authority  and  the rules,  saying  God Almighty, she’s got you guys comin’ or goin’. What do you think she is, some kind of a champ or somethin’?.

The  divergence  in  the  views  of  Murphy  and Ratched   is  clearly  shown  in the  scene, where Murphy demands a small change in the schedule,  so  that  inmates   could see  the opener  of   the  1963 World  Series,  saying  a little change never hurts.   Ratched  immediately  retorts.

    Some men on the ward take a long, long time to get used to the schedule. Change it now and they might find it very disturbing

But   what  follows next  is  really  interesting,   Ratched, agrees to go for  a poll,  and  Murphy finds only  3 people  supporting his proposal.  However   when  the next  time round,  Murphy  gets  9 people supporting  his proposal,  Ratched, changes the rules  saying that he needs support  of  at least  18 members.    Very typical  of  dictatorships   and even  one party democracies,  which  claim to have the people’s  will  to rule,  and  yet  when  the  same people  revolt,   the  system  immediately  changes rules  so that it is not in danger.

Quite  a sinister parallel to some of  the Warsaw Pact states during  the Cold War.  As long   as they toed the line  of   Kremlin,  everything was fine,  but  if  they dared  to break away  like Hungary or  Czechoslovakia,   immediately,  you would have Russian tanks  comming in.  Not that the  US  was better,  as  for  all its commitment  to democracy, it propped  up many  tin pot dictators  so as to topple democratic regimes, not  in tune with its policies,  Chile being the best example.

In spite  of  the often  dark, and brooding nature  of  the theme,  director  Milos Forman, injects moments of  humour  and warmth.  One of  the best  being  when  denied  access to watch the  World Series on TV,   Murphy  actually recreates the  game  play by play, using inventive techniques.   Jack   Nicholson’s  performance  in the scene  is  just  brilliant,  as he  keeps  switching  his expressions.  Just  this scene  would  make you understand  why  Jack totally deserved  the  Best Actor  award.

Another   really  great scene  is when Murphy   sneaks  out  the inmates of  his ward ,    on  a wild  fishing trip.  In  one  of  the  best  comic sequences in movie  history,  he introduces  the  asylum  inmates  as doctors  themselves.

This is Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Taber, Dr. Frederickson, Dr. Scanlon, the famous Dr. Scanlon, Mr. Harding, Dr. Bibbit, Dr. Martini, and Dr. Sefelt (William Duell)…Oh, I’m Dr. McMurphy, R. P. McMurphy.

One  Flew  Over The Cuckoo’s  Nest  is a totally  heartwarming tale  of  an individual’s  struggle  against an oppresive system.  Though  some of  the later  scenes  are very shocking and disturbing,  especially the scene in which Billy commits suicide,  and the ending is tragic,  Forman makes sure,  that  the movie does not get bogged down too much in depression.  At  times sweet,  at times  warm, at  times comic,  and  yet shattering,   it is  a classic   for  all times.  

And  again here  apart  from  Murphy  and  Ratched,  the other characters  in the movie also create  a strong impact.  Especially,  the nervous,  stuttering  Billy, who suffers  from mother domination,  and  whose  weakness is  made use  of  by  Ratched,  superb  performance from Brad Douriff in  his debut movie.    Will  Sampson,  Danny De Vito  and Christopher Lloyd,  offer  excellent support too.

Louise Fletcher  as  Nurse  Ratched  is  first  rate.  In a role,  that is cold, calculating  and  dominating,  she exudes  so much menace,  that you just end up hating her.  You detest  the  way she changes rules wilfully   and  preys  on the inmates  weaknesses.  She deserved  the Best Actress Award   as much  as  Jack did.   And  of  course no mention would be complete  without  good ole  Jack,  who  puts in a fantastic  performance, that is  rebellious, quirky and angry.  He  makes you chuckle,  and yet in  the final  scenes,  he  affects  you  emotionally.

This  is  the only  other movie  along with   It Happened One Night,  and  Silence of the Lambs  to win all the  5 Major oscars,  Best Movie, Best  Actor, Best  Actress,  Best  Director  and  Best  Screenplay.   And  it deserved  all of  them.

  1. Excellent Review!Made me realize some undiscovered dimensions of the movie. Anybody who is into this Classic, should start with Review or at least end with it.Thanks!

  2. Beautiful review and film ! Will try to read the book too . Saw it long back 🙂 and everything flashed back. The subtle humour in the otherwise dark theme ah !! Great movie indeed .

  3. I loved your review and it was interesting how this film could reflect history – so much to think about x So wanting to see this again now with your perspective of this film in mind. Thanks so much for bringing this to my blogathon x

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