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“””One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest””: Themes and Issues” Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: Jun 11th, 2022


“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a movie by Miloš Forman, filmed in 1975 and based on a book by Ken Kesey. It depicts a period of time in a mental health facility where a group of patients is receiving their treatment under the supervision of a head Administrative Nurse Ratched when a criminal recidivist Randle McMurphy is transferred from prison to the hospital for evaluation. Prominent personalities of the book characters were adopted by the screenplay and emphasized by the brilliant performance of the actors, which allowed this movie to receive five Academy Awards in major nominations and to join the list of 100 best American movies according to the American Film Institute (AFI’S 100 YEARS…100 MOVIES, 2007, par. 3). The themes and issues of the film and the depth of its characters allow conducting a detailed analysis of this story and posing important questions from the psychological point of view.

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  1. If it was necessary to pick a character from the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to illustrate the definition of cognition and cognitive processes, then the story’s protagonist Randle “Mac” McMurphy can serve as an excellent example. Cognition, as it is defined in a dictionary is “the mental process of knowing, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment” (“Cognition”, 2011). McMurphy illustrates all of these aspects, as the audience gains an insight into the life of this character. Although he does not show any signs of mental illness, Mac is brought to a hospital, where he tries to avoid imprisonment by faking a mental disorder. His perception of the people and the environment that surround him is exceptional, and his reasoning may at first seem awkward, but later the plot reveals that it was an intentional way of interaction with other patients and the staff of the facility. However, some of McMurphy’s thoughts and decisions remain a mystery, according to the director’s idea, which is highlighted by a scene where he falls asleep on the floor instead of near an open window, forsaking his attempts to escape. Whether he had chosen his fate consciously or it was a mere accident is unknown to the audience.
  2. While Randle McMurphy can be seen as an example of cognitive processes, he also acts as a trigger for cognitive and personal development for other patients, for instance, at the scene of fishing, when adult patients feel happiness and inspiration for the first time in years, resembling children having moments of joy and learning to experience positive emotions. The background of the patients’ characters in a movie implies that most of them did not have a normal life before coming to the mental facility, and some even had experienced tragic events. All of them feel insecurity and fear, both of the authorities in the hospital and life on the outside. Still, although the patients suffer from mistreatment by Nurse Ratched, they prefer staying at the hospital, where they receive help and have no need for making decisions of their own. Some of them, for example, Billy Bibbit or “Chief” Bromden have had issues with their parents in childhood that to some extent had shaped their personalities. Billy is afraid of his mother, probably which is the reason for his stutter. The very idea of confronting her leads him to numerous suicide attempts, and when Nurse Ratched threatens to notify Billy’s mother about his misbehavior, he suffers a nervous breakdown and eventually kills himself. Bromden, on the other hand, is a man of mixed heritage, raised by an American Indian father and a white mother, whose oppressive actions were directed towards his father. As Robert P. Wexler puts it in his article.
  3. In an important sense, the family is always the matrix for social and individual identity. We are our family… we need to ask how Chief Bromden can gain back his manhood, in a sense rediscover “the name of the father,” when he is rooted in a family which has denied that name, privileging instead the name of his white mother (Bromden). Chief Bromden’s problem, in this sense, is the difficulty he faces in attempting to recover the roots of his Native American identity… Bromden’s “mixed heritage” is at the root of the Chief‘s problem of identity, accounting, to a large extent, for his schizophrenic narrative. More specifically, the Chief’s family history puts him in the precarious position of a son who believes that his roots can only be discovered through his father, a man with ethnic minority status. The Chief is a son, in other words, attempting to achieve manhood in a world dominated by women in general… but specifically by a white mother. (Wexler, 1995, p.1).

These examples show that in some ways the biological factors and parental influence in concordance to the three main theories (evolutionary, biological/genetic, and behavioral) are able to condition a person’s development. According to research by Kimberly Nelson (n.d.): “Personality theories have many differences, however, one aspect of personality that the theories agree upon is that parents influence children’s personalities. Specifically, how they are influenced and the extent of this influence, however, varies between theories” (p. 3).

The evolutionary theory implies that Bromden’s behavior resembles his father’s coping strategies, including drinking issues and attempts at making himself unnoticed to avoid the attention of other people. The behavioral theory allows suggesting that both Billy’s and Bromden’s psychological problems result from their parents’, specifically mothers’ actions. The mental health facility in the movie may represent an environment where parental influence is still strong, since most of the patients act like obedient children, and the medical staff develops a system of punishments and rewards and imitates parental care for the patients. This also explains the interconnection and influence of the environment on the behavior and cognitive processes of the characters.

However, the genetic theory of parental impact can be illustrated by Chief’s growing self-efficacy and his realization that he must turn to his true identity to gain freedom. It occurs that his father’s traits in his character are not only flaws but also his stronger sides, which improves his self-efficacy. Here it can also be noted that his awareness was triggered by McMurphy, who acted as a “force of nature” and a conductor of an environmental impact. His self-efficacy and self-confidence often were on the verge of arrogance, but his energetic personality affected the patients of the ward and allowed them to raise their self-determination.

For them, the so-called “nurture factors” for improving their self-efficacy were almost or absent, and the only way of restoring it was through the “natural factor” of McMurphy’s disturbance of the quiet hospital’s life. Although this impact was short and insufficient to change the lives of the patients completely, at least one of them, Chief Bromden was able to reassess himself and gain enough confidence to escape the tyrannical regime of the hospital and attempt to live on his own, although McMurphy eventually had to pay for his friend’s revelation with his life. Probably this tragic experience also influenced Bromden’s decision to escape, as his last words to McMurphy are: “When I first came here, I was so scared of being lost I had to holler so they could track me… I figured anything was better than being lost…” (Hauben, 1975).


In conclusion, it must be said that the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is true to life in many aspects and without doubt can be recommended as a medium of training for people who study psychology and psychiatry, as this work of fiction poses many important questions and addresses the topics that are essential even now when over 50 years passed after the filming of the movie. Wind Goodfield states in her article named “Mental Hospitals in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, that “Cuckoo’s Nest is realistic in some ways, and it was a hugely important movie for the time because it helped bring attention to some hospitals with unethical practices or unsafe living conditions. Both the book and the movie are insightful views into societal problems such as stereotypes about people who have mental disorders” (Goodfield, 2012, par. 11). Still, the characters and the story that is told in it are captivating and force the viewer to watch the movie, again and again, inspiring new ideas and encouraging deeper and more thorough analysis.



Cognition. (2011). American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Web.

Goodfield, W. (2012). Mental Hospitals in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Architecture and ethics in Hollywood hospitals. Web.

Hauben, L. (1975). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Script. Web.

Nelson, K. (n.d.). Three Theories of Personality Development. Web.

Wexler, R. P. (1995). The Mixed Heritage of the Chief: Revisiting the Problem of Manhood in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Journal of Popular Culture, 29(3), 225–235.

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