One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Flecher, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Will Sampson, William Harding, Christopher Lloyd

Director: Milos Foreman

Set in an unnamed Oregon town in 1963, the action of the film takes place in the town’s mental institution. The opening scene shows the admitting of 38-year-old Randle Mc Murphy (Jack Nicholson), a criminal serving time for statutory rape of a minor due to insanity, which, the viewer quickly realizes, is faked by him in order to avoid a longer jail sentence. The doctor in charge is not convinced and he commits him to one of the wards for observation till the insanity is proved or disproved. His fellow patients in the ward include Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a 30-year-old stammering, suicidal, nervous wreck who has a deathly fear of his mother, Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassik), a timid man prone to childish temper fits, the delusional Martini (Danny DeVito) ,Dale Harding (William Redfield) a well educated paranoid,  the morbid and profane Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd), Jim Sefelt (William Duell) and finally, “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), a gigantic native American who is presumed deaf and mute, who’s been there for almost two decades.

The institution is run by the domineering Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who keeps the patients strictly under control by means of mind numbing routines and therapy sessions, that McMurphy soon discovers, are actually humiliation sessions where the patients are made to tell their personal problems, presumably in order to resolve them through consensus, but instead it only causes them to break down and fight with each other like rabid dogs. McMurphy at first enjoys thoroughly, but his smile fades as he sees Nurse Ratched smiling triumphantly, looking at the squabbling patients.

McMurphy also discovers that the patients fear Ratched and cannot do anything which she does not agree with or approve of (the exception is Chief, who being deaf & mute is excused from these sessions). Their fear of her is stronger than their desire to get cured in order to return to the outside world. He realizes that Nurse Ratched’s therapy sessions and the institution’s schedule are designed more to keep the patients docile and under control than curing them. Her complete control only means that her superiors approve of her methods.

McMurphy quickly becomes the dominant and most troublesome patient in the ward thanks to his complete disregard for authority and rules, like gambling in the ante room, smoking and swearing loudly, and refusing to take medication. He starts challenging Ratched whenever possible. He even tries convincing her to allow the patients to watch a baseball game on TV instead of listening to the routine, monotonous music. She refuses. McMurphy, in defiance, stands in front of the switched off television screen and starts shouting an imaginary commentary of a baseball game, which causes the other patients to disrupt the entire ward.

He also bonds with the patients by means of a basketball game which causes the otherwise withdrawn Chief to silently admire him. In his most daring move, he wrests control of a bus –meant to take the patients on a tour –herds his fellow patients aboard, picks up his prostitute girlfriend, Candy (Marya Small), on the way and on reaching the shore, takes them all fishing in a boat after tricking its captain. The patients have the time of their lives till the authorities finally arrive. This is one of the only two outdoor scenes in the entire film, and it makes the viewer feel the brief freedom that the patients enjoy in the open sea, away from the usual claustrophobic environment.

The incident causes the hospital to tighten its restrictions on McMurphy, and even consider sending him back to jail.  McMurphy learns a startling fact: the hospital holds the power to detain him, Billy and Chief indefinitely. All the other patients in the ward, except the very serious cases, are voluntarily committed and can leave anytime, but they don’t. During one of the discussion sessions, Cheswick gets out of control and McMurphy and Chief get into a fist fight with the guards. All of them are sent for electrotherapy. While waiting for his turn, McMurphy learns, to his delight, that Chief has only been pretending to be deaf and mute all this time to avoid attention.

Upon his therapy, McMurphy returns with a stone face and jerky movements, much to the shock of his ward, but then suddenly reanimates to everyone’s joy as it is just one of his pranks.

The same night, he decides that he has had enough and plans to escape from the institution, as he cannot risk being sent back to prison. He asks Chief to come with him, but he declines, stating his fear of the world. He calls Candy and another girl, asking them to smuggle liquor with them. They sneak in, and McMurphy even ropes in the warden for the liquor party involving the patients, which quickly leads to the dismantling of the entire ward.

McMurphy then starts bidding farewell to all the patients and sees that Billy is the most emotional to see him go. He decides, in his last act of infamy, to have Candy spend a night with Billy, and the two retire into an adjoining room. McMurphy and the other patients then fall asleep, owing to the combined effects of alcohol and the daily medication.

Nurse Ratched and the orderlies arrive in the morning to find the ward wrecked completely. All the patients are summoned. McMurphy and Chief are held back as they try to make a quick getaway. Ratched is enraged to find a half dressed Billy (with Candy) who, for the first time, faces her confidently without stammering. Ratched, using her usual weapon against him, threatens to tell his mother about it and Billy reverts to his old stammering and nervous self, begging the nurse not to do something like that. She calmly has the orderlies lock him up in a room where Billy, unable to control his nervous breakdown, kills himself with a pair of scissors. McMurphy is devastated and viciously attacks Nurse Ratched when she tells the patients that “they should get on with their routine”. He nearly strangles her to death before being knocked down by the orderlies and taken away.

The film then moves ahead by many days. The ante room is shown with the patients playing their usual card games, all kinds of rumours flying around about McMurphy, ranging from his lamb-like subdual  to rumours of his escape. The Chief listens curiously. Nurse Ratched is shown smiling weakly, just a shadow of her former self.

Late that night, as others sleep, McMurphy is brought in by a couple of orderlies and laid on his bed. Chief rushes over to him and whispers that they should escape right away. Getting no response, the Chief tries lifting him up and is horrified to find out that he has been lobotomized (Lobotomy: Severing the nerves that connect the right hemisphere of the brain with the left. It was a cruel way used in the earlier times to subdue difficult mental cases). Chief decides that he cannot leave his friend in such a pitiful existence, to be seen by the other patients as a symbol of Nurse Ratched’s victory. He suffocates McMurphy to death before the others wake up. He then smashes the window of the ward by a heavy slab and escapes, just as dawn breaks.

Based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, the film won all the major Academy Awards that year, including Best Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Fletcher), Director (Foreman) and Best Film. The only one to lose out was Brad Dourif.

Jack Nicholson makes Randle McMurphy an unforgettable character. He is the soul of this film, and he plays the anti-authoritarian, rebellious, crazy and unpredictable character to perfection. His transformation from a selfish, repeated offender looking for an easy way out, to a person who eventually pays the ultimate price for caring for his fellow inmates (he gets quite a few chances to escape, and he chooses not to every time, thereby sealing his own fate) is marvelous. His performance is a lesson for any aspiring actor and a treat for any admirer of cinema.

Louise Fletcher brilliantly plays one of the coldest villains in film history. As Nurse Ratched, she personifies the system, which drives everyone crazy in the guise of benefitting them. Of the supporting cast, Brad Dourif as Billy Babbit is the best as the tragically fragile young man whose life is cruelly snuffed out of him. Small but significant performances are given by Christopher Lloyd and William Redding. Will Samspson as Chief Bromden is impressive.

The word “milestone” is not used very often in cinema, and rarer still is a film that lives up to the tag, like this one. Czech director Milos Foreman adapts the novel with a few minor changes for the screen (in the novel, Chief Bromden is the narrator and all the other inmates escape in the end).The story uses the context of a mental institution to portray the never ending and largely hopeless struggle of the individual against the establishment. It shows, without any flowery promises, that this results in the certain destruction of the individual or the section fighting the establishment, but it has to be carried on for the hope of change.

The film ends in McMurphy’s defeat and destruction, but he also ends up shrinking Ratched into a mere mortal from someone who once seemed invincible. Out of the two people whose life he changes, Billy meets a sad end, but Chief Bromden lives for the hope sowed in him by the doomed McMurphy, thereby signifying that a minor change has been achieved. Though some criticisms might be made for portraying the inmates as someone McMurphy can use to carry out his adventures, it is to an extent excusable in this otherwise flawless film.

As someone who escaped from erstwhile Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring in 1968 (Soviet Union’s crackdown of anti communist forces in that country), Foreman surely pours his understanding of fighting a totalitarian establishment into the film beautifully. The largely interior settings depicting the mental ward and the robotic movements and compliance of the patients to the numbing schedule depicts the establishment’s total domination of the individual, in contrast to the final scene of the film which shows the dawn breaking through the smashed window from which Chief Bromden escapes to an uncertain but welcome future.

What would you choose?

Ankur Jayawant

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