Welcome to my page of notes on
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
Although analysis of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" already exists on the internet (and I'm sure it is both plentiful and thorough), I was keen to add my own thoughts principally out of a sense of admiration and gratitude. This film (and book), perhaps more than any other, had a profound effect on my outlook, and indeed helped to fashion it, as a 17/18 year old when it was first released.
Reflections on "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"
by Stuart Fernie
For me, "Cuckoo's Nest" is concerned principally with the place of the individual in society and the means by which certain elements of society seek to impose order and exercise control, sometimes at the expense of the individual's (mental) health, but certainly at the expense of independence and freedom.
The hospital of the film/book is society in microcosm, with the patients displaying (or representing) problems in coping with life and the pressures they feel in the exercise of their social functions. However, it also represents the ways (discreet and quite indiscreet) in which "society" applies pressure on the individual to conform to what is regarded as the "norm" in terms of behaviour and attitude.
An essential point to note is that the story is not concerned with so-called "lunatics". These men have not lost their minds - they are simply having difficulty in coping with the problems and pressures thrown at them by society. As such they inspire pathos, sympathy and compassion. More importantly still, we could all succumb to similar pressures and end up in a similar position.
Behind the outwardly caring and helpful facade of (mental) health care lies a subtle and widespread attempt to enforce compliance and acceptance of authority. This is achieved not just through the clear manifestation of physical discipline and control, but also (and more effectively) through the use of "therapy" in which the analysis of a problem not only assumes the very existence of, and responsibility for such a problem, but actually promotes and aggravates it as patients reflect and brood on their problems, doing nothing to diminish them and instead blowing them out of all proportion.
Into this centre comes Randall Patrick McMurphy (are we to read significance into the initials RPM?), a highly sociable free spirit who seems to offer an alternative to inward-dwelling reflection in the form of socialisation. He treats his fellow inmates as equals, is not judgmental (beyond displaying human and perfectly understandable frustration), accepting his new friends for what they are and offering them the chance to forget their problems, or at least to keep them in proportion as he involves them in one defiant scheme after another.
In contrast, Nurse Ratched is a tool of society, used to exercise order and control. This she achieves less by direct confrontation and more by subtle means such as playing on and maintaining character weaknesses, undermining self-confidence, and constantly "rubbing salt in open wounds" through therapy sessions, the consequence of which is to maintain the malleability and suggestibility of her patients.
She may represent any element of society which seeks to oppress or "depress" other elements, rather than being seen as the instrument of bureaucratic oppression. There are many who delight in the weaknesses of others and who derive pleasure and strength from the torment they inflict. Nurse Ratched, and indeed the entire hospital may be seen as representative of coercive and intolerant elements of society at large.
Another "message" to come out of the film is that we can change the structure of our society - if we have the courage and determination to do so.
R. P. McMurphy is one such determined man. He is a natural, highly sociable free spirit who challenges Nurse Ratched's authority because he resents by instinct her frequently underhand tactics of maintaining authority. It is worth noting that it is not so much order itself he rejects (he may even see the necessity of some order), but more the ways in which order is achieved, and perhaps the extremes to which she is prepared to go.
His determination and actions reflect a relatively simple man who is just what he appears to be. He is open and has no "side". He is mischievous and fun-seeking, yet he is thoughtful and sensitive to the condition and plight of his fellow inmates. When he acts, he acts by nature rather than by reflection. He fails to see the bigger picture and certainly does not consider matters of principle. He acts simply according to his conscience and does what he feels is right. Harding and the others would perhaps like to be able to act in this way, but they have questioned themselves (and doubted themselves) to such an extent that they have lost confidence and can no longer function as "normal" members of society. McMurphy remains unfettered by such considerations and as such represents a considerable challenge to the domineering elements of society, though he himself fails to understand what he represents to both the hospital administration and his fellow inmates.
It seems to me that McMurphy means and does no great harm, but he is a constant thorn in the side of the authorities as he doesn?t take life too seriously, while those around him (authorities and inmates) appear to have created problems for themselves exactly in taking life too seriously.
Nurse Ratched appears to be caring and well intentioned - she may even believe that in thwarting McMurphy's plans for change and various other schemes she is acting for the greater good of her patients. However, as McMurphy's challenges become ever more "dangerous", she shows her mettle and doesn't flinch from taking measures to ensure continued adherence to the rules. Indeed it is only at the end that we see just how far she will go to enforce her authority, casting aside individual success and welfare merely in an effort to establish her own position.
We do not feel that Nurse Ratched is warm and caring. She is polite and pleasant, but cold. This is a job she does well, but it remains that - a job. She fulfils her function and is very proud of her position of authority, pride which leads her to place her position above the well-being of her patients. So incensed is she at the undermining of her position that she ignores the clear progress made by Billy and sets about restoring her order - at the expense of Billy’s improvement, indeed of his life.
The film has been accused of being morally unambiguous compared to the book. In the book Kesey cleverly used descriptions provided by the mentally ill Chief to communicate atmosphere and a general sense of being "lost" and hopelessness, but McMurphy's arrival leads to clarity, hope and purpose. My recollection of the book is not one of any particular moral ambiguity, indeed the Chief's "fog" implies disapproval of the "system", though there may be more sympathy for, and an attempt to understand Nurse Ratched, while in the film her character is hardly "explored", but is rather a sort of gauge by which to judge the more rigid and blinkered aspects of society. Nonetheless both the book and the film are clearly travelling in the same direction, and the film script/performances may even have added greater humanity and sympathy than were present in the book.
It has been suggested, and I have frequently thought that McMurphy may be regarded as an almost Christ-like figure.
Let us consider some of the reasons for this:
McMurphy challenges the status quo, and threatens to subvert authority.
He "cures" the sick (by inspiring confidence, the lack of which has caused most of the inmates' problems).
His fellow inmates may be regarded as his "disciples".
He is "betrayed" by Billy, as Judas betrayed Jesus.
There is a "last supper" of sorts.
McMurphy dies for others' "sins", or at least in trying to help them overcome their "sins".
In death, McMurphy inspires the others to believe in themselves and in something greater than the imposed status quo.
Although McMurphy dies, it is nonetheless a spiritually uplifting ending. His spirit continues in the hearts and minds of his fellow inmates (and the audience), especially the Chief who has grown in confidence enough to be able to escape and live his own life. In death McMurphy's spirit and inspiration have developed well beyond any influence he might have been able to exercise as a "patient".
Both the script and direction managed to mix humour, pathos, tension, sociology, and even (to some extent) religion! It had, of course, excellent base material by Ken Kesey, but it was brilliantly brought to life (and perhaps even clarified for some, though I can understand the various qualms expressed about the book to film adaptation) with love and respect.
The performances of the "lunatics" are uniformly excellent, and none more than that of Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. The producers of the film were on potentially dangerous ground given the context and the content of the film - they could easily have fallen into sentimentality or might have created a "cold" film about treatment of the mentally ill. As it is, our emotions are fully engaged without drifting into sentimentality, and we feel great sympathy and pathos for the characters. These characters could also quite easily have been sacrificed to the themes of the film, but the script allows the themes to arise from the conflict between the characters, rather than have the characters illustrate the themes of the film.
It would probably not have been too difficult to elicit sympathy through these characters, nor to make a hero of a rebel in an unfair regime, but to achieve this with humour, warmth, and above all in creating a depth of feeling and caring for these people (and a genuine sense of shock and loss when McMurphy is killed) is a marvelous achievement, and it is this emotional element (for which all involved in the production should share credit) which elevates the material to the highest level. Our emotional engagement allows what could have been a dry or intellectual artistic exercise to evolve into a profoundly human tale of love, tolerance and understanding.
I think the music (by Jack Nitzsche) deserves a most honourable mention - not only does it underline emotion, it enhances it and even creates in itself an emotional response to a situation. I'm thinking particularly of the Chief’s escape where the music captures loss, defiance, strength and nobility.
I hope you found this page of some interest. My thanks for taking the time to read it. I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the film or my thoughts about it. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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