After watching “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” for the first time in many years, I recognized a political dual taking place on the battleground of an insane asylum. Director Milos Foreman sets the stage for one patient to win over the community from the Head Nurse in charge.
Jack Nicholson is Randall P McMurphy, a criminal who is transferred to the asylum for examination even though there are likely suspicions he’s faking his current condition as a means to escape prison life work detail. Louise Fletcher is his opponent as Nurse Ratched who has maintained an organized control over the floor of 19 men with an assortment of mentally unwell behavior.
McMurphy is a cut up as soon as he joins the gang. At first he appears observant during Ratched’s daily sessions where she asks the men to contribute to the discussion but at the same time she couldn’t be less encouraging. She’s happy to welcome ideas with open arms but don’t disrupt the process. There will also be “Medication Times” and there will be samples of classical and childlike music to subdue the patients as well. McMurphy may request the volume be lowered, but that’s not a simple request that Nurse Ratched will honor.
McMurphy’s experience outside the realm of insanity works as a wake up call for some of the men which consist of introductory performances from great character actors like Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito and Vincent Schiavelli. The stand out is Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit, the stuttering suicidal young man with the baby face who fears his mother’s judgment as Nurse Ratched methodically continues to imply.
McMurphy wins over the crowd eventually. A fascinating scene is when Ratched challenges McMurphy to obtain enough votes among the men in order to watch the World Series. The count of raised hands appears to tie, but then Ratched reminds him that he needs one more vote to win. Before he can get to that point, the session is ended by Ratched. The call for election is lost due to a technicality by the governing control. An election won’t silence the voice of the people as McMurphy quickly encourages the masses to watch a blank television screen imagining his own interpretation of the game. Ratched can only domineer to a certain degree. Here’s the flaw in the Ratched character. At last a breakthrough among these ill men is established as they’ve learned to vote for themselves. They want to watch a baseball game. Ratched won’t stand for progress though.
Questions arise in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Is McMurphy truly faking his mental condition? Is Ratched so drunk on control to disregard doctors’ opinions for his release and keep him institutionalized? If he’s not insane, then why would she want him there? Is it all about Ratched’s obsession with winning?
Ken Kesey wrote the original novel the film is based on. He hated Foreman’s approach particularly with disregarding telling his story from the perspective of the deaf/mute six foot five Native American that McMurphy regards as “Chief” (Will Sampson). Chief seems to be the quiet one who does not take sides until McMurphy demonstrates the ease of obtaining freedom such as when the Chief helps him escape over a barb wire fence and then takes the men on a boating joy ride. I can’t side with Kesey’s insistence that the film be done from the perspective of the silent, yet memorable Chief. Film is a different medium than what’s read on a page. You can’t watch people’s thoughts. What I do find interesting is that Kesey opted for a Native American as McMurphy’s best sidekick. This is a man whose ancestors historically lost their land. McMurphy attempts to rob the rule of the asylum from Nurse Ratched. The political undertones just seem so apparent. The government control, however, is hard pressed to surrender even after McMurphy arranges for his own party of celebration complete with booze and alcohol. Ultimately, and sadly, the fate of McMurphy shows that he eventually becomes a product of his own environment. The Chief however, acknowledges his independence though.
“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is the second of three films to win the five main Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). It deserved it, and because of the film’s unsettling and messy nature it’s almost surprising that it was so well received. It’s not a glamorous film. It can show the ugliness of men drowning in their own consciousness.
At the same time, the film shows the subtle yet brutal control of those living fulfilling lives at the expense of the constituents they oversee. Sure, let’s have an open minded community of provoking thoughts, but only if it’s confined to the restrictions that remain in place. Step outside those lines and a more permanent technique will be applied so you adapt to what’s mandated…unless you can bodily lift a concrete water fountain and smash it through a cage bar enclosed window to freedom.