Miloš Forman’s cinematic adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the
Cuckoo’s Nest, is deservedly in IMDB’s top 20 films of all time; It fast-tracked Jack Nicholson
into the highest pedigree of acting, won a staggering 5 Oscars and is regarded as one of the
most coveted films by aspiring directors.
The film is set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, where we are first introduced to the
protagonist of the film, the free-spirited American brawler, Randle McMurphy: he is
remarkably bold, authentic and has an ‘incorrigible sense of humour’. He is serving a
relatively short incarceration period but decides to have himself declared insane in order to
be transferred to a mental institution, where he expects to serve the rest of his time in
comparative comfort and luxury.
McMurphy is the antithesis to Nurse Ratched, the icy villain of the film; she is a
hurtful, tyrannical despot with absolute power over the institution – her favourable
methods for keeping patients in order are electroconvulsive therapy, capriciously revoking
basic privileges and cruel psychotherapy (in which she humiliates one of her patients into a
suicidal mess) – a lot of these themes apply to the modern world. The most horrifying
element of Nurse Ratched is that she is real, she exists in the form of a teacher, a nurse,
anyone with some authority or control over our lives.
McMurphy, however, is the foil to her dominating and rigid rulership. He forms
friendships with the patients, Billy Bibbit and ostensibly mute and immutably sad, Chief
Bromden. He endeavours to liberate the patients from Nurse Ratched’s tight grip and
oppression through unstoppable optimism and zealous fervour – Nicholson conveys this
aspect of McMurphy with absolute perfection. In fact, there is real, raw emotion from every
rebellious character in the film, even the hilariously ebullient and infantile Martini (played
by Danny DeVito).
The film, from a broader perspective, is representative of society’s gradual
suppression of individuality and humanity – this is conveyed through Chief Bromden, an
unfettered, free-spirited native American, who is entirely subverted by a mechanized
institution that preys on freedom. This juxtaposition of individuality with living in an
institutionalised setting demonstrates the oppressive nature of order and how it enables
tyrants to gain destructive and total control – this culminates in several tragic events
throughout the film.
On balance, this is a “must watch”, especially in the modern era where it feels like
we are becoming more institutionalised by the day. Every single character within the film,
from Dale Harding’s intellectual wit to McMurphy’s livewire personality, will evoke some
form of emotion. The painfully desolate shots and perfect music score from Jack Nitzsche
alternate the mood from truly uplifting to devastatingly depressing in a moment
By Tom Kennedy