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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Film review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), directed by Milos Forman

Classic film, one of the greats: #10 on IMDb’s Top 250, and for good reasons too.

In 1963 a prison inmate, R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), is moved to a mental hospital to be evaluated, as he’s repeatedly acted up and doesn’t do very well with authority. He doesn’t seem to be mentally ill by any means, but as he’s also not keen on working he hopes that being in a hospital will be a doddle.

And sure, he doesn’t need to do any hard labour, but the ward nurse, Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), is not one to be trifled with. Especially not by a troublemaker like McMurphy. Her strict regime is threatened, especially as McMurphy quickly establishes himself as the leader of the other patients on the ward. Who will come out the victor in this battle of wills?

Also starring Danny DeVito as Martini (I didn’t even realise it was him until I saw the cast list!), Christopher Lloyd as Taber, Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit, Sydney Lassick as Cheswick, William Redfield as Harding, and Will Sampson as “Chief” Bromden.

While watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I was thinking it would make a great stage play. There are a few different settings, but primarily, it’s set on the ward in the mental hospital, and there is a defined core of characters too. It could be a play very easily. Then I looked it up on Wikipedia, and it seems to have been a play before it was a film. It was a book too, which I have a vague recollection of reading some time in my teens.

McMurphy got into jail for statutory rape: he had (consensual) sex with a 15-year-old, thinking she was older. 15 is the legal age of consent in many countries, including Sweden, so he doesn’t strike me as a hardened criminal. If he had forced her, it would have been a different matter. I don’t know, maybe that bit is there to make us sympathise with him.

What gets remembered from this film is That Awful Nurse. That’s what I remember too, that Ratched is evil. Seeing the film again, an undisclosed number of years later, I see it in a different light. She’s trying to keep it together, make sure the patients don’t run amok, and McMurphy comes in and rocks the boat. The party scene is a good example of things getting out of hand, and the male nurse or orderly or whatever he was (Scatman Crothers) who allows it to happen really should get into trouble, because in allowing a party in the middle of the night, he’s putting the patients at risk. It’s a mental hospital, not a hotel, for cryin’ out loud!

Same with McMurphy taking everyone for a boat trip. It might seem like fun and games, but when someone falls overboard and drowns, which would probably happen in the real world, it would be a different matter. It’s reckless and dangerous.

So, no, I didn’t see Nurse Ratched as Evil Incarnate, or even a killjoy. I think she was trying to do her job the best way she could. Up to a point, at least. There were points where she really did just seem petty and vindictive. Like with the baseball voting. That’s a time where you can be a little lenient, and she wasn’t, because she chose to be a bitch and mark her territory, so to speak.

But what a film, eh? An adorable bunch of lunatics played by some fine actors, a strict nurse and a grinning scoundrel to upset the status quo. Fantastic. The quiet – presumed deaf and mute – Chief is perhaps the greatest. We don’t really know why he’s there, and he seems perfectly sane. The ending is triumphant. Love that majestic mountain of a guy!

And Jack Nicholson! He shows a fine range as McMurphy. Rebellious and intense, but at the same time caring deeply about right and wrong. As I’ve come to realise, when seeing a bunch of his films in a short period of time, there’s often no other actor I can think of who could have played the part better. This is probably the exception. Other actors could easily have played McMurphy and done it just as well, but at the same time, Nicholson seems a perfect match.

This is a very, very good film indeed. If you come across the book, give that a read. It’s probably even better. (Not that I can remember, I probably read it 15 years ago.) And yeah, the description on Wikipedia said something about how Nurse Ratched is controlling and evil, basically, and that the patients were more focused on being scared of her than they were on getting better, but I didn’t really get that feeling. They were all there voluntarily and could leave at any time, but they chose to stay. Not because they didn’t dare leaving, but because the world inside those walls were safer and easier than the big, scary outside world. At least that’s how I saw it.

5 out of 5 baseball games.

Traxy

An easily distracted Swedish introvert residing in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel, when there's not a plague on.

2 thoughts on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

  1. The nurse in that movie reminded me of a dog trainer I used to work with – means well, thinks she is a good person, but really a bully at heart who enjoys lording it over fellow creatures. The ending to this movie broke my heart. 

    1. As movie endings go, it’s a very strong one. It’s on par with Dead Poets Society; except OFOtCN doesn’t make me turn into a human sprinkler for half an hour every time I see it. *cough*

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