“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” - Milos Forman (1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), won the five major US Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Male Lead, and Best Female Lead). The story is based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey, who himself was celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) as a crucial link between the 1950s Beat Generation and the 1960s Counterculture Movement. So Kesey’s tale became iconic for all the people who felt that a profound cultural change of liberation was sweeping over America during the 1960s  and 1970s. The story concerns the experiences of a roguish troublemaker who has tried to lighten his prison sentence by getting himself transferred to a mental institution.  But things don’t turn out according to plan.

The film’s theme of rebelliousness inside an oppressive, claustrophobic environment was an ideal topic for director Milos Forman, who had permanently left the Communist-ruled society of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (the period of the “Prague Spring”) and probably had his own personal perspective on large-scale social suppression of freedom. Nevertheless, Forman’s film stays quite faithful to Kesey’s storyline and tone.  In any case the Kesey/Forman depiction of a rebellious outsider trapped inside an insane asylum may suggest various metaphorical interpretations, from the individual personal level on up to the plane of social organization on a national scale.  However, the film’s popularity is not so much based on such interpretive considerations as it is on the narrative's visceral conflict that builds up around the two principal characters, who are given spirited and convincing performances by the two leads, Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy, the devilish antihero and protagonist. Fletcher plays Mildred Ratched, the domineering nurse and McMurphy’s nemesis.

The film begins by showing the mundane, though somewhat bizarre, environment inside an Oregon state mental hospital ward that is managed by Nurse Ratched with the assistance of two junior nurses. Some of the inmates appear a bit odd, but look basically functional. Others are catatonic or are lost in their own dream worlds. Into this quiet and relatively ordered environment is introduced a new inmate, Randle McMurphy, who is anything but tranquil. He is clearly a boisterous mischief-maker who had originally been imprisoned at a state prison work farm for statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old girl. This wasn’t just teenage puppy love, because McMurphy is more than twenty years older than the girl and is clearly a person who doesn’t toe the line with respect to social norms. 

McMurphy has been transferred to the mental hospital on account of his violent behaviour at the work farm, but it seems clear that he has planned the whole transfer thing in order to live a relatively soft life sitting around the mental hospital instead of doing hard labor.  What McMurphy wants to do is have as much fun as possible, but Nurse Ratched immediately sees that he introduces into the hospital ward an atmosphere of mischief that is threatening to her little realm. 

The ward has a television, but McMurphy doesn’t just want to watch any old TV show; he wants to watch the US baseball world series and cheer wildly as the game unfolds. He wants excitement, just what Nurse Ratched doesn’t want. The more able inmates in the ward are used to playing cards, but McMurphy turns their simple card games into poker and blackjack betting rings. Soon McMurphy has won all the other inmates’ cigarettes at the card table. So Nurse Ratched clamps down. She banishes TV and confiscates the inmates’ cigarettes so that McMurphy can’t get his hands on them. The atmosphere inside the ward becomes progressively more stifling by the day.

But the ward inmates are enthused by McMurphy’s nervy jests and begin to see that the world offers more opportunities for action than they had thought. Even when he fails, as with his  attempt  to lift up a water fountain to demonstrate how he could smash out of their confinement, McMurphy reminds them, “at least I tried”.  The only way to live is to seize control of your own destiny, he is telling them.  One day McMurphy sneaks over the barbed wire institutional fence, steals one of the asylum’s busses and takes his inmate buddies out into the wide wide world. He picks up his call-girl gal, Candy, on the way and then cons his way into getting them all out on a deep-sea fishing boat.  They all have a rollicking time and catch some big fish, too.  On another occasion McMurphy teams up with a towering deaf-mute inmate, “Chief” Bromden (played effectively by Will Sampson) to enable the patients to defeat the mental hospital orderlies in a spirited basketball game.  He proves to his mates that if they try, they can win.

Naturally, the authorities are frustrated with McMurphy’s antics. To his shock, though, McMurphy is informed (now about halfway through the film) that the authorities actually hold the ultimate trump card: unlike a prison term, McMurphy’s term of confinement has no specified release date. Nurse Ratched and the authorities can hold McMurphy in detention until they feel he is fit to be released, i.e. for as long as they like.

The struggle between McMurphy and Ratched now turns darker. After one episode of unruly behaviour, McMurphy is given electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT).  Deciding the only way is to breakout, McMurphy bribes the night attendant Turkle, who unlocks the window to let Candy and another call girl in with whiskey bottles so that they can have one last wild, drunken party.  As he is about to make his final departure, though, McMurphy invites one of the inmates, a nervous and insecure stutterer named Billy, to join him.  Billy is too shy to take up the offer, but McMurphy, knowing that Billy is attracted to Candy, insists that he at least spend an amorous hour alone with her.  The other inmates laughingly herd Billy and Candy off into a bedroom, and the drunken party continues on for awhile.  Unfortunately, everyone passes out, and the great escape never takes place.

The downbeat denouement of the story quickly plays out.  When Nurse Ratched and the attendants show up in the morning and see the ward in shambles, they forcibly restore order. Billy is so shamed and humiliated by Nurse Ratched that he commits suicide at the first opportunity.  McMurphy is so enraged by this that he physically attacks and almost strangles Nurse Ratched before he is knocked out by an attendant. McMurphy is then taken away from the ward. Later, at night, Chief Bromden discovers McMurphy in an upstairs bed and sees that his inspirational friend has been lobotomized and is little more than vegetative. Unable to tolerate seeing McMurphy in this diminished condition, the Chief smothers him with a pillow. Then he goes back to the water therapy fountain, picks it up, and uses it to smash out of the mental hospital window and escape to freedom, as McMurphy had once proposed.  When the other inmates wake up to the sound, they know what has happened, and they give a rousing cheer.

As a punctuated narrative, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest goes through three basic high points – the fishing trip breakout, the basketball victory, and the drunken revelry – followed by the final disastrous downturn. All of those high points represent “victories” in the face of repression and are what people like most about the film. One truly memorable dramatic moment is when McMurphy introduces to the fishing boat operator his team of inmates who are presented as first-class medical experts – Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Martini, Dr. Bibbit, and so on. Since scientists and academics do tend to look a bit “different”, anyway, the boat proprietor is readily fooled that these actual madmen are scientific professionals. And for the moment, we, the audience, delight in seeing the inmates simultaneously from both our own knowledge (that these people are mental patients) and the boat operator’s perspective (that the same people are academics). Of course, the joke is really on us, because they are actually just actors – neither medical professionals nor mental patients, just role players.

One narrative alteration that Forman and his scriptwriters did make concerns the focalization.  Kesey’s novel is told from the narrative perspective of the supposedly deaf and dumb Indian, “Chief” Bromden (Bromden only pretends to be deaf and dumb to fool the authorities, it turns out).  So Kesey's story is really Bromden's journey. But the film takes a more objective narrative standpoint. This perspective change reduces the narrative impact of Chief Bromden’s final act of liberation. Bromden had always felt that the authorities tend to suck the life out of people, and when he sees McMurphy in his lobotomized state at the end, he feels that the life has already been sucked out of his friend. Thus the Chief Bromden focalization in Kesey's story provided a contextual perspective for his murder of McMurphy, but it is less evident in the film.

There are also some theatrical alterations which, although perhaps dramatically dictated, reduce some of the verisimilitude and impair our ability to share the experiences of these “others”.  The mentally ill people in the ward tend to be presented as exaggeratedly weird.  Although we may delight in seeing some of these over-the-top displays of neurosis, this is more for laughs than it is for sympathy.  These peripheral thespian deficiencies, though, are more than compensated for by the performances of the two leads – the chillingly placid and manipulative Louie Fletcher and the exuberant mischievousness of Jack Nicholson. 

As for the larger social meaning of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I don’t think the political implications, despite our knowledge of Kesey’s and Forman’s past associations, can be taken very far.  Our hero, McMurphy is admittedly obstreperous, irresponsible, and often violent.  And the villainess, Nurse Ratched, is perhaps truly sincere in carrying out her job according to how she has been trained.  We can’t just organize our society so that the McMurphys of the world can run roughshod over the rest of the people.

No, the meaning of the film lies at a deeper and perhaps more disturbing level. Nurse Ratched runs her little microcosm to guarantee conformity and normative compliance. Everyone’s weaknesses are exposed to all so that they can be publicly humiliated – in fact so that they can be propgrammed to go on and continually subject themselves to self-admonishment.  Into the midst of such conformity-by-humiliation then comes McMurphy, whose motto is carpe diem (that is, in the fashion of Michael Jordan and Barack Obama, “you can do it”). McMurphy is clearly a threat to the normative-compliance institutional world that prevails, and therefore he is deemed to be abnormal and suffering from an illness.

So there is something ultimately sinister about how conformity and the idea of what is “normal”  is pervasively operative throughout our modernist society.  It has engendered an entire profession of medical professionals who are dedicated to identifying abnormal people (as speicified by our social norms) and treating them as ill.  These are the community of psychiatrists; and the power they have acquired to identify anyone who doesn’t agree with them as suffering from paranoia has an existential horror associated with it.  In fact this insidious power, itself, induces paranoia, and this is why One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can be classified with other films about paranoia, such as Bedlam (1946), Shock Corridor (1963), and Shutter Island (2010). 

In fact the psychiatric community has gone through several stages in terms of treating “abnormal” people, and I invite readers to see my review of Shutter Island for further discussion of this issue.  Initially, mentally abnormal people were simply locked up in institutions.  Later they were subjected to invasive medical procedures such as shock therapy (ECT) and lobotomies that amounted to little more than brutal procedures of trial and error.  Throughout the 20th century mentally abnormal people were said to be suffering from a disease – they were labeled as mentally “ill” – and this was the theme of psychotherapy from the time of Sigmund Freud onwards. But this mental illness theory, which purported to be based on scientific principles, was only metaphorically associated with real scientific procedures, as has been identified by a number of authors, such as Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing, who were medically trained doctors in this area [1,2,3,4]. When the public began to rebel at such misuse of the term “illness”, the psychiatric community moved to what appeared to be a more acceptably scientific path – the use of psycho-chemicals.  So today abnormal people are not “ill”; they are now said to be suffering from a mental “disorder”.  This has given rise to the enormously lucrative psychiatric-pharmaceutical industrial complex to treat such “disorders”, and it makes things look more scientific [5,6].  But it is still pretty much a practice by trial and error, but now with chemicals whose impact on the brain is not well understood.

I am not suggesting that there are not people who need care and treatment.  But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that we have a scientific understanding of consciousness and the complex operations of the human brain [7]. In fact neuropsychology not only cannot explain consciousness, the phenomena of consciousness are not within its semantic scope. Thus the enormous complexity of the human mind is far from our current scientific understanding, and we need to treat people who behave with what we consider to be bizarre behaviour in a humane and sympathetic way.  We can even sometimes learn things from these people [8,9].  But we need all our worldly humanistic and empathic understanding to help such people and generate fruitful interactions.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest touches on these issues, because the medical professionals in the film, including Nurse Ratched, look pretty normal and professional to us.  They are not evil; they are the people we conventionally count on. They are operating according to established standard procedures and believe they are doing what must be done.  But we, the audience, intuitively feel otherwise and that there is something fundamentally wrong with way things work when we watch the film.  McMurphy is not just in the mental hospital by mistake; according to society’s current standards, he should be placed there.  Unfortunately, most of the current medical authorities are only running a show of coercive conformance by social oppression and humiliation.  This will only make the patients see themselves as sick, as suffering from a disease. We need a larger, more encompassing vision of what it is to be human that empowers and encourages our best behaviour. Reducing scientific interaction to the notion of a detached observer examining an objectivized, inanimate object diminishes the scope of our possible investigations [10]. What we should really be doing for the more complex domains of our experience is ensure that phenomenologically-based scientific observation incorporates the conscious observer as part of the interactions under consideration. Scientific reductionism only works for some domains, not for the general case.  In general, we should be pursuing a more interactionist and phenomenological scientific approach that encompasses our human interactive involvement when we examine the rich complexity of the world we occupy.

  1. Szasz, Thomas, The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), Harper and Row, NY.
  2. Laing, R. D., The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (1960) . Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  3. Laing, R. D., The Self and Others (1961), London: Tavistock Publications.
  4. Laing, R. D., The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967), Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  5. Farber, Seth, "Institutional Mental Health and Social Control: The Ravages of Epistemological Hubris” (1990), The Journal of Mind and Behavior, Summer and Autumn 1990, Volume II, Numbers 3 and 4, http://www.academyanalyticarts.org/farber.htm.
  6. Farber, Seth, “Szasz and Beyond: The Spiritual Promise of the Mad Pride Movement”, (2012), Mad in America, November 21, 2012, http://www.madinamerica.com/2012/11/szasz-and-beyondthe-spiritual-promise-of-the-mad-pride-movement/.
  7. Rosenhan, David L., “On Being Sane in Insane Places”, Science,  19 January 1973: Vol. 179 no. 4070 pp. 250-258, DOI: 10.1126.
  8. Farber, Seth, “Against Psychotherapy and Biological Psychiatry” (2001, 2013), http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/FarberAgainstPsych.php.
  9. Farber, Seth, The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement (2012), Inner Traditions. Also see the author’s Web page at http://www.sethhfarber.com.
  10. Further, accessible discussion of these issues can be found in the article, “The Heretic”, by Andrew Ferguson, The Weekly Standard, March 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27, http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/heretic_707692.html?nopager=1.

No comments: