One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Review

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Director: Miloš Forman


Based on the 1962 novel of the same name by counterculture Beat-adjacent writer Ken Kesey, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is an amazing film adaptation of a challenging novel. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is one of Jack Nicholson’s seminal movies from the 1970’s along with Five Easy Pieces (1970), Chinatown (1974), and The Shining (1980) among others. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest swept the 1975 Academy Awards winning Best Picture, Best Director (Miloš Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher). There are a number of other recognizable names in the film, including Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, and Danny DeVito. Czechoslovakian Director Miloš Forman built a name for himself satirizing Eastern European communism hence why he was a perfect fit for this film. His later notable films include Hair (1979), Ragtime (1981), and another Best Picture-winner Amadeus (1984).

The story was initially purchased by Kirk Douglas, but when his plans fell through, the rights to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest were sold to his son Michael Douglas for production. Michael Douglas apparently took quite an active role in the movie.

In a certain sense One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is the contemplation of a willful authoritarian regime. It is a film showcasing the dichotomy between the sanitized, lifeless world of pure order, and a chaotic but colorful world of pure freedom -Ken Kesey was once an unsuspecting victim of the CIA’s Project MKUltra and his skepticism toward modern technologies of power is pervasive throughout the story. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest celebrates the 1960s ideal of escapism from the confining bounds of dictatorial control. The film’s chief effect of blurring the line between patient and prisoner is executed impeccably. Who are the truly insane or disturbed characters in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest? The fragile but unpredictable patients? Or the psychopathic sadist we know as Nurse Ratched? In a world of limitless technology, anxiety-inducing rigidity, and detachment from the natural world, people who do not conform are locked away for their unproductiveness. The underlying theme of this story is control and a romantic Rousseauian view of natural man. As in The Shining we are given certain subtextual Native American symbolism throughout One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and in fact the novel is actually told from the perspective of the silent but stalwart Chief who is perhaps the obscure hero of the film. His character sees the most growth. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was shot on location at a still-active mental hospital near Salem, Oregon, and scenes of the surrounding forests are portrayed as wild, untamed, and peaceful but they are contrasted with the rigid schedules and controlling bureaucracy of the hospital. Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has been convicted of raping a 15 year-old girl and instead of being sentenced to hard labor he elects for commitment into a mental asylum. The asylum/hospital is ruled by a cold, calloused, dictatorial healthcare professional named Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). She plays a surprisingly perfect villain –she believes herself to be the God-ordained hero of her own story, and she smiles when the slightest impulse toward creative disorder is snuffed out.

On the floor we meet a cohort of men carrying all manner of mental illnesses. It quickly becomes apparent that McMurphy is not like the other patients, and his freewheeling presence becomes a threat to Nurse Ratched’s tyrannical reign. First, he tries to escape by tossing a large water fountain through a window, the punishment for which is electro-shock therapy. Then, McMurphy throws a Christmas party after-hours complete with alcohol and girls (prostitutes). When Nurse Ratched arrives the next morning to find the floor in complete disarray she attempts to publicly shame one of the men named Billy. But when he promptly commits suicide, McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched and nearly strangles her to death. As punishment, McMurphy is lobotomized (lobotomies were actually banned by the time this movie was released). Nurse Ratched now wears a neck brace and McMurphy has been rendered lifeless. In the end, the Chief mercy-kills McMurphy by suffocating his now-lifeless body, and the Chief fulfills McMurphy’s escape plan by chucking the massive water fountain through the window. He is cheered by the other inmates as he triumphantly runs out into the woods. The organic human will conquers the implacable system only by breaking free and escaping into nature.

Apparently, Ken Kesey was disappointed with the film. He refused to watch it right up until he died in 2001. Nevertheless, with a batch of unique and challenging roles, along with an equally excellent score and directorship, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a truly penetrating picture that is now ingrained in our cultural consciousness.

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