*May contain spoilers
I would like to begin by mentioning that the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey that this film is based on is truly one-of-a-kind. The 1975 film adaptation would be nothing without the complex plot, eccentric characters, and striking allusions that Kesey brought to life in words and pages, rather than on screen. It is definitely one of my favorite books.
Winner of the Big Five Academy Award categories—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay—Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. Randle P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a newly arrived patient at a mental institution in Oregon, where he constantly rebels and attempts to rally the other patients in defying the inhumane Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). McMurphy’s carefree, restless attitude pitted against Nurse’s heartless, oppressive demeanor drives the plot. McMurphy is the only person to see through Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), a chronic Native American patient, and quickly befriends him. They plan to escape together. The film perfectly captures the unconventional, bizarre personalities of all the mental ward patients, thanks to such a talented supporting cast—it’s easy to forget that the patients are actors, probably due to the fact that they lived in an actual mental hospital during filming.
One of the scenes in which the extent of Nurse’s cruel manipulation of the patients is most evident is the morning after the Christmas party. Nurse Ratched enters to see the ward in disarray and the patients lying around, drunk from the previous night. Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a boyish, shy patient with an extreme speech impediment is caught sleeping with a prostitute. For a brief moment, while encouraged by his fellow patients, Billy is proud and loses his stutter when standing up to Nurse. When Nurse responds by shaming him and threatening to inform his mother, Billy breaks down in hysterics. In an instant, through Nurse’s cold, unforgiving eyes, Billy’s confidence and moment of strength is struck down—he reverts to his stutter, eventually committing suicide. This scene is interlaced with the reactions of McMurphy as he witnesses the situation with growing disgust and hatred of Nurse Ratched. It is at this point that McMurphy recognizes his role in the ward and his duty to the patients—he must be their savior.
The ending (coupled with a brilliant soundtrack) is perhaps what makes this film a masterpiece. McMurphy is the ultimate martyr; his sacrifice permanently shatters Nurse’s power and brings satisfaction to all. After McMurphy is left brain dead after receiving a lobotomy as “punishment”, we see Chief’s sorrow transform into empowerment as he suffocates McMurphy out of mercy. “You’re coming with me…let’s go,” Chief says, and just like that, McMurphy is liberated. Chief then lifts the control panel that McMurphy could not at the beginning and hurls it out the window—the ultimate symbol of freedom from the confines of the ward. They have both escaped—Chief runs away into the night, with McMurphy beside him in spirit. Although our two heroes did not exactly defeat the system, they did not let the system defeat them.