Very few films are capable of eliciting the full spectrum of human emotions, but one of them is Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. At times, we celebrate the joy of defiance as Randall P. McMurphy triumphs over Nurse Ratched. Other times, we feel frustration at the stifling institutional control. We even seethe with absolute anger. And ultimately, we weep at the tragedy inherent with the tethering of an individualist soul to an uncomprehending authority.
The narrative of the film follows Randal P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a convict sent to a mental health institution for evaluation. It is made clear that McMurphy is faking any mental issues in an effort to serve the remainder of his sentence in the relatively cushy psyche ward. Of course, he had no idea that the sinister Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) would be waiting for him, far more dangerous than any prison warden. The crux of the story and conflict involves the interaction between these two titanic forces: McMurphy the free-thinking individualist, and Ratched the domineering oppressor.
Sometimes Ratched wins the tilt, and sometimes McMurphy does – though the result can turn on a single moment. One of the more important battle of wills occurs over McMurphy’s desire to watch the World Series. At group one day, he suggests that the schedule be changed so that he and the other men on the ward can watch the baseball game. Ratched puts it to a vote, and few of the men are on McMurphy’s side. Later that evening in the game room, McMurphy proves to everyone else just how intent he is on watching that game: he tries to lift a gigantic plumbing fixture from its foundations and throw it through the window, though ultimately fails.
McMurphy’s desire for freedom impresses all of the men who witness this feat, so when Charlie brings up that a second game of the World Series deserves a second vote, it is a landslide: all nine members of the therapy group raise their hands. Ratched calmly trumps them by pointing out that it would take a majority vote – and there are a total of 18 members of the psyche ward. McMurphy can’t believe she is counting the mentally challenged members, but realizes he only needs one additional vote. He scours the room for one more raised hand, and Ratched closes the meeting. Ultimately, the deaf/mute Indian affectionately named “Chief” seems to understand and raises his hand. But Ratched will not be beaten; the vote has been closed and there will be no baseball game.
Until McMurphy sits down in front of the TV and Nicholson puts a twinkle in his eye to indicate the germination of a brilliant idea. McMurphy stares at the TV, and begins announcing a baseball game. The men wander out from their room, and McMurphy continues. They look up at the screen dumbfounded, but assume that since McMurphy sees it, it must be happening. As the radio play continues, Ratched looks on, enraged that she has been beaten, and worried that her control of the men on the ward is slipping.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dramatizes this struggle between McMurphy and Ratched. McMurphy treats the men as sovereign individuals capable of taking control of their own lives and living well, whereas Ratched is content to coddle them, control them, and constrict their movements and freedom – for their own sake, of course. But, isolated moments hint at a darker motivation beneath her surface. Ultimately, her insidious nature is revealed in the climax of the film.
During a going-away party for McMurphy, the young Billy sleeps with one of the girls McMurphy invited. The next morning, Billy is discovered by Ratched, and he actually manages to stand up to her for once. Until she skewers him with the one thing she knows will hurt him most: “I can’t help but think of what your mother will say”. Billy immediate retreats, and begs Nurse Ratched to not tell his mother. But Ratched knows how important Billy’s mother is in his life, and she insists that she will have to. As McMurphy watches Billy fall apart in front of him, he starts to realize (with the rest of us) that Ratched is not only willing to use her patient’s greatest fears against them – but experiences a sadistic glee in doing so.
Billy’s suicide is inevitable, and when Ratched tries to skirt the blame, McMurphy nearly throttles her to death. Tragically, this results in a treatment for McMurphy’s dangerous, unhealthy aggression: a lobotomy. When he is returned to the ward, the Chief goes to tell McMurphy that he is finally ready to take responsibility for his own life, “I feel as big as a damn mountain”. Chief understands that McMurphy’s mind has been beaten, and killed. His individual spirit has finally been crushed by institutional authority, and Chief will not leave him to rot here. “I’m taking you with me”, he says, before smothering McMurphy with a pillow. Chief then lifts the plumbing fixture which McMurphy initially used to gain the support of the group, and actually manages to throw it out the window and escape. This wakes the men, who believe – at least for the moment – that McMurphy has succeeded and escaped.
The film ends on the poignant moment of Chief escaping with McMurphy’s spirit, and the rest of the men elated that McMurphy has finally triumphed. It is not important that they will discover him dead in the morning. For this fleeting moment they will believe that a single man can fight a stifling authority and emerge victorious. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows us the tragedy which occurs when a free spirit is forced to conform, but also provides us the courage to command the direction of our own lives. For a nation reeling from the recent war in Vietnam and its decidedly tyrannical bent, this near-perfect film offered both a damning condemnation of those in charge and a new direction. In the forty years since its release, its themes have not abated.