This is one of the greatest American films of all time – a $4.4 million dollar effort directed by Czech Milos Forman. Its symbolic theme is set in the world of an authentic mental hospital (Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon), a place of insurgence exhibited by a vigorous, flamboyant, wise-guy anti-hero against the Establishment, institutional authority and status-quo attitudes (personified by the patients’ supervisory nurse). [Forman himself noted that the asylum was a metaphor for the Soviet Union (embodied as Nurse Ratched) and the desire to escape.] Expressing his basic human rights and impulses, the protagonist protests against heavy-handed rules about watching the World Series, and illegally stages both a fishing trip and a drinking party in the ward – leading to his own paralyzing lobotomy.
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Jack Nicholson’s acting persona is the heroic rebel McMurphy who lives free or dies (through an act of mercy killing).
The film’s title was derived from a familiar, tongue-twisting Mother’s Goose children’s folk song (or nursery rhyme) called Vintery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn.
The ones that fly east and west are diametrically opposed to each other and represent the two combatants in the film. The one that flies over the cuckoo’s nest [the mental hospital filled with “cuckoo” patients] is the giant, ‘deaf-mute’ Chief:
Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn; Wire, briar, limber lock, three geese in a flock.
One flew east, and one flew west, and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
With an insane asylum standing in for everyday society, Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel is a comically sharp condemnation of the Establishment urge to obey the rules. Playing fanatical to evade prison work detail, frenzied free spirit, Randle P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is sent to the state mental hospital for assessment. There he encounters a diverse crew of mostly voluntary inmates, including intimidated mama’s boy Billy (Brad Dourif) and unvoiced Native American Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), presided over by the icy Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
Ratched and McMurphy recognize that each is the other’s worst enemy: an authority figure who equates sanity with correct conduct, and a nonconformist who is enigmatic enough to dismantle the system simply by living as he pleases. McMurphy’s message to live liberated or depart this life is ultimately not lost on one inmate, enlightening that escape is still possible even from the most tyrannical circumstances.
The patients are prearranged and controlled through a severe set of dictatorial rules and regulations that McMurphy questions.
In a spectacular, exhilarating, and unforgettable scene, McMurphy strains and struggles gallantly to pick up the tremendous load, gritting his teeth – but he cannot lift it. As he strides from the room, he turns toward the patients, refusing to concede defeat, maintaining by his example that it is better to try and fail than to meekly accept an poor status quo.
In the most well-remembered sequence in the film, McMurphy subversively pretends to be enjoying the second World Series baseball game on television in a contest of wills with the Nurse.
He inventively re-creates the play-by-play excitement of the game. His excitement proves infectious – the other patients join him and look up at the dark television screen that reflects their faces – they almost believe that the game is real.
In the film’s conclusion, inmate Chief Bromden realizes that “Mac” has had surgery on his brain. [A frontal lobotomy is the surgical severance of nerve fibers connecting the frontal lobes to the thalamus, a severe procedure commonly practiced in the 1930s-1950s on mentally-disordered patients.] He knows that McMurphy has lost his vital vigor and will never be able to escape with him to Canada. He hugs his friend and then ends his misery to free him from the bondage of his existence in an act of mercy killing. Bromden smothers and suffocates McMurphy with a pillow.
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Then, with his tremendous strength and inspired by McMurphy’s liberating example, proving that a single person can still overcome oppressive conditions, he picks up the marble wash station from the tub room and smashes through the window with it.
He escapes from the cuckoo’s nest, flying away to the outer world – yet the world’s horizon is both threatening and liberating. The other inmates remain incarcerated in the locked ward of the hospital after everything that has transpired. [In the novel unlike the film, the inmates courageously leave the hospital for new lives in the outside world.]
R, 2 hrs 13 min.
The main conflict in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is described in three different ways:
- As the struggle of the “sane individual in opposition to a fanatical establishment,” “man vs. mechanism,” and “a archaic, wild, unsocial, anti-family form of masculinity vs. sexless women, institutions, and the social order that want to tame it.”
- Ken Kesey’s notion of the Combine—as demonstrated by President Eisenhower’s policies, and commercial America’s views on an proficient, disciplined, and yielding society—with Chief Bromden’s concept of the Combine—an omnipotent, all-seeing clandestine faction in the mental hospital, which watches and reins everything.
- During the mid-1960s Kesey and his group, the Merry Pranksters, referred to those in their counterculture as being “on the bus.”
- Kesey states that One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest helps the reader to “question truth” by “tearing away the fabric of what we’ve been told is reality and showing us something that is far more real.”