I don’t really know how to put into words the sort of impact that this movie had on me the first time I saw it, and still carries on me now. But I figured that maybe it may be the perfect time in order to talk about what it is that this film means to a person like myself. It’s the sort of experience that almost feels very vindicating for myself, because I always have that very fear of being stigmatized by people around me for my own mental health. I’ve lived within a sheltered life for most of high school and when I watch this movie, I always find myself feeling like there will be people out there that see in the sort of person that I am, I’m capable of being far more than what I may seem like. For helping shape the way that I view cinema as a whole, and to have made a film that reminds me that there are still good people in this world who see us as being far more than what others would see, I don’t know if I can be grateful enough that this film exists.
This is a film about rebellion, one that is set only within the most fitting of places, a mental institution in Oregon during the 1960’s. Their newest occupant is Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a criminal who seeks to find leisure within his own sentencing away from hard labor and within a more relaxed environment. The ward is run by none other than the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who keeps a very strict code of conduct that McMurphy sees as being harmful to the betterment of his fellow patients. This is the sort of film that only a filmmaker like Miloš Forman could have made, having made films that satirized authoritarian ideals during his time in Czechoslovakia, and clearly he hasn’t lost grasp of that as he was adapting Ken Kesey’s novel to the big screen. But the best that a director like Forman could carry when taking on a story like this would be his empathy for the mental patients, blurring the lines between sanity and insanity.
Forman’s background from the short-lived Czech New Wave shows, for their films had been made in order to battle against the oppressive atmosphere that their people had lived under. Having escaped Czechoslovakia for America, the background in which Forman had come from is one of the most important factors to the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, given how it rounds out the most noted archetypes of oppressive politics. For one, you have Nurse Ratched as the “Big Nurse” of the ward, who believes that she knows what is best for the mental institute but Randle McMurphy, a man who pretended to be insane in order to seek luxury, sees this ruling as being oppressive – for never does he look down on the other patients but he sees them as other human beings that are being victimized by the corrupt influence of Nurse Ratched. Under her influence, the institute is the prison that McMurphy sought to avoid – Forman takes this very detail in order to parallel his escape from Czechoslovakia, knowing the many controversies his work has gotten himself embroiled in.
As he takes the very nature of that background in order to tell another story about the treatment of mental patients, Forman never portrays the mental institute as being what we already would see from it to be on the outside. It feels like a space that any other person could occupy. It was made clear from the first moment in which Randle McMurphy has entered the ward after he pretended to be insane, he sees not another space for people who are lesser than he is but other human beings that have yet to realize their full potential. It feels almost like a space that I’ve been placed within, because Forman sees this very space as being a confined society within itself – one that only has had its own voice shut out because of the voice of authority in Nurse Ratched, keeping the ward ran in a very specific routine for it is what she sees as being beneficial to the development of those within the ward. Forman’s background, having escaped from Czechoslovakia after the controversy set afoot by The Firemen’s Ball is important to consider as he made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for it makes clear the very mood he set to evoke from making this film, sharing with us a story that parallels his own experiences.
But when it comes to the way Forman is handling the stories of the mentally unwell, it’s comforting to know that he has empathy for each and every one of them, giving them all distinctive characteristics that never paint their mental condition under a broad stroke. It feels so vindicating that Forman would have dedicated so much to creating something so distinctive with even the smallest characters because of how he establishes each and every one of them as a human being. Whether it be Brad Dourif’s stuttering Billy Bibbit, Will Sampson’s Chief Bromden, or Christopher Lloyd’s debut performance as Max Taber, they are all rounded out to feel like human beings with such distinct personalities from one another. Given the sensitive nature of the subject matter that Miloš Forman is tackling here, I can’t help but find myself won over by the fact that Forman presents such characters as people like the rest of us. People who need their own calling card in order to achieve their full potential, but are often looked down upon because they are “different” thanks to the oppressive ruling that Nurse Ratched has set for the ward.
There was something that I had always wanted to write about what watching this film had felt like for me, because of what I saw in a person like Randle McMurphy. Beyond the reaffirmation of my own love of Jack Nicholson in general when I watch his performance as Randle McMurphy, what I see in this character isn’t just a character anymore, but another person who would lead a revolution because of how closely he has come to know his fellow patients. At its heart, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film about a revolution going on between Nurse Ratched and Randle McMurphy, one that pertains to their own influence over the other patients – with Ratched’s method being noticeably more cruel and McMurphy inviting the patients to live their lives as best as they can. But as much as Forman created a figure akin to a revolutionary leader in Randle McMurphy, he still feels just like a friend to the patients. He feels like a friend because of the fact he just wanted what was best for them, in order to live a life in leisure – knowing that everyone around himself is happy even with what they have, so that they can feel free.
If I were to describe the very impact that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had upon myself, I would be rambling forever. But I don’t really know how else I can put it, because the most that I know I can say is that I am truly grateful that this is a film that exists, for every rewatch I always question whether it really is something that humanity as a whole had deserved. It feels so liberating to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, knowing that there are people around that are willing to listen to others who can never express themselves properly because of how society has treated them. And Miloš Forman never loses touch of that feeling of empathy which he shares for the mental patients, and it always makes me feel warm on the inside. To that, I can only say, thank you, Miloš Forman. Thank you for reminding me to reach out for more, and thank you for furthering my love of cinema to where I have gone today. I always picture myself watching together with Randle McMurphy as I watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, because what he stands for on behalf of his own friends reminds me of a sort of person I’ve wanted to be around during high school. And these memories have never escaped me one bit. Thank you, once again, Miloš Forman, I hope you are at peace.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Miloš Forman
Screenplay by Bo Goldman, Lawrence Hauben, from the novel by Ken Kesey
Produced by Michael Douglas, Saul Zaentz
Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Will Sampson, Christopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, Vincent Schiavelli
Release Year: 1975
Running Time: 133 minutes