One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Director: Milos Forman

Writers: Lawrence Hauben (screenplay), Bo Goldman (screenplay)

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Michael Berryman

Runtime: 2h 13min

The book from which the film was made was begun by Ken Kesey in 1959 or 1960 (sources differ) and published in 1962. It places Kesey as a kind of link between the Beat Generation of the ’50s and the Hippies to come. The film, released in 1975, was set in 1963 (with some reference to contemporary racial tension in Alabama). I have watched the film a number of times but have come to it now in 2021 set against a backdrop of increasing social tension.

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t watched the film then do so before reading – it won five Oscars (Academy Awards) at the time and is ranked 33rd on the American Film Institute’s ‘100 years…100 movies’ list. According to Wikipedia: “the film was deemed ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registr”‘. If you don’t intend watching, but are curious or you HAVE watched then please carry on. I rank this film so highly that I wouldn’t want anyone’s possible enjoyment ‘spoiled’!

Watching as I did in February 2021 I couldn’t help but see this film in relation to the current ‘pandemic’ and worldwide governmental responses. In ‘One Flew Over’ (I shall abbreviate thus) the action is mostly set and filmed in a psychiatric hospital – the same one described in the book, thus giving it more poignancy. A note too here that as well as working at Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital for a while, Kesey also took part in the secretive program known as the ‘Project MKUltra’ prior to writing the book and took various drugs including hallucinogenics (LSD and Psilocybin for instance). This CIA program had only one aim, which was to see if forced confessions could be obtained through mind control after intake of drugs. Again, this adds poignancy to various scenes and themes in the film.

The basic plot is that an offender: Randle Patrick McMurphy (Mac) – played by Jack Nicholson – is sent to a psychiatric hospital to be evaluated for mental illness – he has feigned ‘madness’ to get out of work details/hard labour. On admission – when he sees the doctor in charge – Mac is identified as being belligerent, lazy and resentful – as Mac says, [he] ‘fights and fucks too much’ and has had five arrests for assault plus a statuary rape of a 15-year-old girl. As Mac says to the doctor in a friendly way, full of male bravado: ‘No man alive would resist that’. He also states categorically that there is ‘not a thing’ . The conversations Mac has with the doctor appear very casual and what we might term typically male (joky and with a sense of shared values). Thus we follow what happens to him as he enters institutional life. We must note here that the doctor is perfectly at ease with these casual conversations (and they seem to speak as equals) and that Mac has stated he is NOT mad (but that he has a certain time period to be evaluated). The impression we get is that for Mac this will be a ‘fun adventure’ and respite from prison. He is like a naive but also – as we shall see – an anarchic presence.

In order to get a sense of where the film is going, and what it talks about, here are some of its main themes: Freedom (and captivity); Conformity (to the system); Institutionalisation (and as I see it, a critique of society in general); Psychiatric treatment; Feminism; Sex; Race and to a degree, Politics. It’s FULL of thematic texture. The main conflict centres on the relationship between Mac and Nurse Ratched (the ‘Big Nurse’ of the novel) played by Louise Fletcher. She is (what has been described as) ‘passive-aggressive’, authoritarian – seemingly cold and sterile with a prurient interest in the patients’ lives. She is the ‘all seeing’ eye: “She could have seen you” says a worried patient to Mac at one point. She is a manipulator, using language to control – drawing on ‘feelings’ when necessary. To Mac: ‘These men are members of the ward just as you are” to which he replies, “Don’t pull that hen house shit”. Mac also says of her to the doctor: ‘That nurse, she ain’t honest”.

During one scene, after entering the nursing station and turning down the music (a constant, draining and wearying form of MUSAK), she says: “Music is for everyone. Old men couldn’t [or wouldn’t] hear it if it were turned down.'”

The hierarchy of the hospital seems to be the male doctors and psychiatrists seemingly at the top (who cannot reach a decision regarding Mac’s mental state), Nurse Ratched – who the doctor describes as being ‘the person he [Mac] is closest to [and] the one he most dislikes’ and who is left to decide his fate after the doctors cannot agree. She is the matriarch, the proto-feminist, the channel through which all authority seems to flow. (Alongside Nurse Ratched we have the petite and silent Nurse Pilbow – sexually attractive for the patients I would imagine, seemingly passive but strangely powerful.) We do see a female supervisor at one point too – who is archetypally matronly – her manner and physique being ‘old school’. Underneath Nurse Ratched come the black orderlies/attendants. This was the first time I had noticed their combined role in the film and the flipping of power from what might be expected. They are like a pack of wolves to Ratched’s orders – and also, like wolves, have a sense of independence and non-belonging, despite their pivotal roles (especially so of Washington). It is they that clasp patients to gurneys, who restrain, who control the locking and opening of doors and windows – and it is they who overpower and assault prisoners – knocking out Mac in one VERY important scene. It is also Washington who delivers the bombshell information to Mac that: ‘You’re going to stay with us until we let you go.’ The patients also have hierarchies – one of which is their state of mental health but also whether they are volunteer patients or have been sectioned. Mac is dumbfounded when he realises that most of them can walk out and be free! It is Mac who becomes the focal point of the other patients (the book is actually written from the Chief’s point of view) and they take vicarious pleasures from his actions or imagined actions. And they are also – at least momentarily – freed from their mental restrictions (such as on the fabulous fishing boat expedition).

Nurse Ratched and Mac clash during – what appears to me to be – Cognitive Behavioural sessions – where she seems to both want to elicit sexual details from the patients but also control them via their sexual fears. Mr Harding, for instance, is a closet homosexual that is fearful of his wife’s possible infidelity – he talks in psychobabble and there’s much tension between him and the others – though he has been the ostensible leader of the group before Mac arrives. The young patient Billy with a debilitating stutter is utterly repressed by his mother and Nurse Ratched seems happy enough to use the idea of his mother’s disapproval to control him (and that she is in fact friends with his mother).

I really did get a sense of sexual tension between Nurse Ratched and Mac. We see at least one meaningful glance between the two and it would be understandable that with her being in authority but seemingly highly repressed, she might well be attracted to Mac’s ‘free spirit’ – and vice versa. Mac, as I have stated, brings along anarchy and hedonism into her ordered and very clean, disciplined world. There’s a hilarious exchange between them following Mac’s ECT treatment (more of that later) where he describes to her his supposedly new-found virility following the treatment with an allusion to sex – as I recall he will effectively play the next woman (sexual partner) as a pinball machine, light her up and she’ll give out silver dollars! I have paraphrased – but when you watch again you’ll no doubt pick up on that!

The Hedonist in this case turns the verbal duel against the Puritan. And a note here that Mac brings his girlfriend (possibly a prostitute) to the Fishing Trip and again, with a friend at the major denouement of the film.

Nurse Ratched and the younger Nurse Pilbow administer ‘Medication Time’. We have the conformity of clothing (which changes over the period of the film) – somewhat like mask-wearing in 2021 and drug dispensation for the good of all – rather like ‘vaccine’ programs currently being rolled out. Senses are dulled and moods controlled – which might be thought of as a good thing – but there are always consequences and side-effects. You can see how Kesey must have thought about medication through drugs and their ritualistic administering. Some folk have seen religious aspects to the film/book – if so perhaps these pills would be like receiving the consecrated wafer during Holy Communion. This world is SAFE until Mac comes along and offers FREEDOM!

Thus we have various characters who certainly are damaged but – as we see – are capable of much more. After his first betrayal (finding out that most of the other patients are not sectioned) Mac says: ‘You haven’t got the guts to walk out?! You’re no more crazy than the average asshole in the street!’ They have chosen enforced security and safety over their own liberty.

The hospital regime seems stultifyingly routine and boring and only interspersed with ‘group therapy’ and cigarette smoking (though Mac introduces gambling and mimes the Word Series when the patients’ ‘vote’ is effectively rigged against them watching it). The patients are ‘treated’ by drugs (as discussed) and at times by ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) – it is while waiting for this treatment that Mac passes the Chief a gum and hears his reply, ‘Thank you’. On first watching this – that ‘thank you’ is explosive! I really didn’t expect it. The Chief, a good character actor in the film (and a good actor) spends his time sweeping the floor – seemingly deaf and dumb. A watcher, an outsider – like the Native Americans as a whole, perhaps, in the United States. Reserved (on reservations) – outsiders on their own land – keeping watch and maybe countenance. As stated, the book is written from his perspective and it is he alone who escapes at the end, finally finding the courage to match his stature. The Chief says to Mac at one point regarding his father: ‘They worked on him the way they’re working on you’. It is also the Chief who comes to Mac’s aid when Washington attacks him, which leads to them having the ECT. Just in case – I won’t give away the final dramatic events of the film – though you’ll discover below that the Chief escapes.

One thing I realise I haven’t stressed is the HUMOUR to be found in ‘One Flew Over’ – and there’s plenty of it! The dialogue is wonderfully written – Mac is a joker and a clever man – but not clever enough. The film is also given a sense of other-worldliness by the Muzak that is played to the patients and the original compositions utilising the ‘novel’ instrument – the Theramin. After the Chief escapes into the wilds of Oregon – another poignant moment magnified by the Native returning to the land with its anti-sterility – we can imagine the patients returning to their ‘normal’ lives. I will say this though: three of them will not return!

Was Mac a failed revolutionary? Or was he the catalyst to the Chief’s freedom? Did he instill a sense of freedom and possibility/potential to the other patients that – who knows- might have come out in the future. Did he simply just shake up the system and cause heartbreak and death? How should we view him? I simply can’t risk telling you of his final fate or that of Billy’s. But you can imagine. What I will say is that the institution – the government/the status-quo/the establishment was rocked but it remained. The Chief’s newly found inner-strength gives him freedom – but in another place – Canada. A word too about the director,the Czech-American, Milos Forman who rose to fame in communist Czechoslovakia and through his parents also knew of the terrors of National Socialism.

In the United States, ECT is still legal (as in other countries) but said to be safer – but the last lobotomy was carried out in 1967. Drugs are still prescribed of course and it is hoped – at least – that they are always dispensed with the patient’s best interests at heart. David Susman (PhD), a blogger and advocate for better mental health states in response to the idea that patients may also be “chemically restrained” by being forcibly loaded up on strong sedative medications that nowadays ‘using medications in this fashion is explicitly prohibited. Patients may be provided medications against their will during a psychiatric emergency involving the risk of harm to self or others, but only on an as-needed basis to help them calm down. They should never be given large doses of sedatives on a regular basis just to control or subdue them.’Times have changed but nothing is perfect!

The eras of ‘One Flew Over’ in both its setting and when the film was made seem like distant times. If we were to critique the notion of Freedom v Captivity – then we must acknowledge that we have all since (NOW!) become patients in a global institute! Are we sane? Are governments insane or simply power-hungry? The power of language, twisted to suit political positions, holds us, hostage, with the threat of persecution and even imprisonment should it be used in a non-authorised way. We are a society obsessed with sex but in some ways dominated by Feminism and other political speech-codes. Democracy (as in ‘One Flew Over’) only seems to suit those in charge. Will we need to find inner and outer courage (as with the Chief) to free ourselves in coming years? Who of us will have the strength to fly over the nest?

The title of the film comes from a nursery rhyme read to the Chief as a child by his grandmother (mentioned in the book):

“Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,

Apple seed and apple thorn,

Wire, briar, limber lock

Three geese in a flock

One flew East

One flew West

And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest”

Reviewed by Tim Bragg

2 Comments »

  1. Brilliant review. Tying it to the “pandemic” is perfectly apt. The film is an epic masterpiece whose metaphors can be applied to any time period but none moreso than the current insanity. We need more people like Mac and Chief in the real world to show the way to freedom.

    Like

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