One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1975 film interpretation of the book of the same name written by Ken Kesey. The film’s success and popularity has been evidenced by its taking of the five major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Miloš Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Writing Adapted Screenplay. The US Library of Congress also deemed the film as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and has selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. So what does the author of the original story have to say about it?
Author Ken Kesey was so bitter about the way the filmmakers were “butchering” his story that he vowed never to watch the completed film. Years later, he claimed to be lying in bed flipping through TV channels when he settled onto a late-night movie that looked sort of interesting, only to realize after a few minutes that it was this film. He then changed channels.
Well, what a response! In any case, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an excellent work of film that succeeds in providing a dramatized portrayal of an American mental institution in which no healing is going on. In other words, one in which the patients suffering from errors in the mind are kept well under control and well from being dangerous to others or to themselves, but they’re also kept far too institutionalized and devoid of thoughts of ever returning to the real world. Nurse Ratched is one of the main characters in the film, “one of the finest nurses in the country” whom rules over the patients with an iron fist, developing a mind-numbing daily schedule and partaking in group therapy sessions with some of the patients; sessions seem to exist with the sole objective of bringing each of the patient’s individual problems to the attention of the group and only maximizing their humiliation and embarrassment at being where they are and at why they are there. In essence, the patients fear Nurse Ratched, and no one ever considers questioning her leadership, or rebelling.
That is, until R.P McMurphy comes along. His charges of statutory rape and other criminal acts land him in prison, but his continued defiance of authority lands him in the mental hospital, for fear that he might have developed some sort of condition (it’s all a ploy by McMurphy to steer himself clear of hard labor on the work farm, though). It’s clear throughout the entirety of the film that nothing is wrong with McMurphy, and when he arrives and sees the lack of individuality in the patients, he carries out a string of activities, often not part of Ratched’s plans, in an attempt to heal the patients by letting them partake in more “extracurricular” activities – he takes them fishing by stealing the hospital’s bus, he plays basketball in the courtyard outside, he demands (but does not succeed) to get everyone to vote for watching the World Series on TV, interrupting Nurse Ratched’s schedule; he puts together a drinking party overnight, which ends miserably and leads to the bittersweet ending of the movie, etc. These “extracurricular” activities are presented so lightheartedly and charismatically in the film that it’s easy to feel the happiness the patients feel at taking on new adventures and stepping away from the institutionalized reality of their lives.
Upon seeing how Nurse Ratched treats her patients, it makes you wonder if this is how it is in other mental institutions. For the effect of film, everything is always dramatized and taken a sane bit over the top, but the questions is, is there some truth to this treatment of the patients? Is Nurse Ratched’s tyrannous control really what goes on in other mental institutions? It brings up a question referring to the responsibility of a mental institution. Is it a restraining facility, where potentially dangerous people – dangerous as a byproduct of errors in the mind – are to be kept under control and out of harm’s way; or is it a rehabilitation center where these people are first satiated, but later given a chance to come back out into the real world and try life all over again? The first option is the easiest way out, but if that’s the case, who decides whether your sick mind stays in a white, four-walled coop of an outer-city building, or whether it stays outside in the real world? Who determines this? Your doctor, the head of the mental institution? I mean, of course, if you have a mental condition, you can’t be asked to make a life choice for yourself, but the question is; are the life choices doctors and head psychologists making for their patients, the right ones?
McMurphy, through unorthodox ways, essentially assumes the latter responsibility that the institution, and that Nurse Ratched, never bother to take on. He risks possible arrest to get these guys out into the real world, especially after he learns that many of them are only voluntarily attending the institution and are not forced to be there. He’s ashamed by the men’s lack of fervor for their own lives, and this amazement prompts him to do something about it, but not without being shot down by Nurse Ratched and the instittuion as a whole. His intentions are unclear at first – are his outings with the men simply byproducts of his rebellious, anarchist personality, or do they stem from a subconscious altruism towards people refusing to improve themselves? Towards the end of the film, it’s clear that the latter is the truth; that the violent and criminal McMurphy has developed a soft spot for these men.
It can be said, thus, that Nurse Ratched is afraid of taking the responsibility that McMurphy unknowingly, fearlessly takes. That, or she may just have a controlling personality. Her demeanor in the film suggest the latter to be the truth.
As a work of art, as well as a story and as virtually anything else One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a masterpiece combining a serious topic and dramatized situations, as well as symbolism (e.g. when Nurse Ratched walks into the institution in the opening scenes, there just happens to be a red light above her) and outputting a a stellar film worth of Academy Awards and much praise. It raises questions about the power of the mind, about mental institutions, about the fragility of the human condition that few other films, I’m sure, have done with equal charisma, gripping scenes, and ultimate excellence.