PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

Rebel Rebel

The time is ripe for revisiting One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, as we're all aware that individual freedoms are still being suppressed by governments around the world.


One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978045116396
Author: Ken Kesey
Price: $9.99
Length: 336
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 1963-02
Amazon

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the quintessential tale of a defiant and creative mind that questions and collides with authority. The novel, written by Ken Kesey and published in 1962, takes place in an all-male Oregon mental hospital from the point of view of Native American “Chief Bromden”, who has faked being a deaf-mute for years.

Despite being told from Bromden’s perspective, the story centers on the arrival and stay of Randal McMurphy, who is convicted of battery and statutory rape. In order to get out of prison and transfer to the hospital, McMurphy feigns insanity.

The ward is run by Nurse Ratched or the “big nurse” as Bromden calls her. She is a tyrannical figure who controls and withholds basic rights like toothpaste and cigarettes. She does her best to emasculate her patients, particularly inmate Billy Bibbit, a shy, suicidal patient with a terrible stutter. Bibbit is deathly afraid of his mother and Ratched uses his fear by constantly threatening to tell his mother on him.

Immediately upon his arrival, McMurphy recognizes Ratched’s hold over the men and begins a power struggle with her, pushing her buttons and getting the other patients to question her authority. Right away, he bets the other patients that he can get the best of her:

“One week, and if I don’t have her to where she don’t know whether to shit or go blind, the bet is yours.”

With the patients under his influence, McMurphy turns the hospital on its head -- something some of the other patients have wanted to do but haven’t had the nerve to go through with fully. In addition, McMurphy is constantly planning his escape. At one point, which is pivotal to the story, he demonstrates how he would break out of the ward by trying to pick up a heavy control panel and hurl it through a window. When he is unsuccessful at prying the bulky piece of furniture from the floor, he tells the other patients, “But I tried, though … Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much, didn’t I?”

McMurphy is class clown. He verbally rouses Ratched and kids the other patients. He also plays the role of leader -- organizing poker games and a fishing trip, as well as inciting a vote among the inmates to view the World Series on TV. He becomes the first person on the ward to earn Chief Bromden’s trust. When Brombden lets his guard down and reveals that he’s faked his deafness, the two men bond and decide that they’ll escape the ward together and go to Canada.

But like the fate of all good heroes, McMurphy’s downfall is inevitable. After a big party in the ward that involves liquor, drugs, and prostitutes, McMurphy and the other patients fall asleep and are caught red-handed the next morning. Nurse Ratched finds Billy Bibbit in the arms of a prostitute and threatens to tell his mother about what he’s done. Her threat causes Bibbit to slit his own throat.

When Ratched blames Billy’s death on McMurphy, he attacks her and attempts to strangle her, but is removed and carted up to the Disturbed Ward where he ultimately loses his mind, so to speak, when he is given a lobotomy.

Kesey got first-hand experience in the field of mental illness and psychiatric wards when he worked the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental institution in California. While working there, he interviewed the patients, and as part of a government-sponsored experiment, received electroconvulsive therapy and took LSD, mescaline, and the patients’ drugs.

The 1975 adaptation of Kesey’s book was directed by Milos Forman and starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. The film is often found on “best of” lists and earned a win in all five major Academy Award categories (Best Picture, Actress in Lead Role, Actor in a Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay). This feat hadn’t been achieved since It Happened One Night in 1934, and would not be accomplished again until 1991 when Silence of the Lambs swept all five categories.

Czech director Forman lent authenticity to the film by shooting it in an Oregon State Hospital, and has said that the asylum worked as a metaphor for the Soviet Union, which he also felt was personified by Nurse Ratched.

Jack Nicholson is a natural for the role of valiant, flippant rebel, McMurphy. He had recently played a similar character in Easy Rider. Apparently James Caan, Gene Hackman, and Marlon Brandon were considered for the role, but it ultimately went to Nicholson. Could you see anyone but him wearing that knit black cap while trying to squeeze the life out of Louise Fletcher?

One Who Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was Fletcher’s debut. As Nurse Ratched she is so cool and domineering that she made me want to strangle her. Other notable performances include Sydney Lassick as Cheswick, Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit, Christopher Lloyd as Taber, and Will Sampson as Bromden.

Ultimately, though, the film belongs to Nicholson. He is the embodiment of McMurphy to the core. One of my favorite scenes is of the guys after losing the vote to watch the World Series on TV. Nurse Ratched has the TV tuned to some other channel, smiling in her quiet smug way, knowing she’s once again won the battle between her and McMurphy.

But as the defeated patients are shuffling back to their rooms, McMurphy sits in front of the television and begins to yell out play by play of the game as if he were watching it. This attracts the patients to join him and soon they’re all looking at the screen and cheering as McMurphy continues narrating the imaginary game. It’s the moment of ultimate unification against Ratched. Even though they didn’t get what they had originally wanted, the men are still able to use their “delusional” mental status to come together and celebrate.

But there are few times they get to come together before their fates take a cruel downward turn. After McMurphy’s lobotomy, realizing he’ll be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, Bromden does his friend the ultimate favor by smothering him with a pillow. He then breaks out of the hospital by lifting the panel that McMurphy had wanted to lift in the beginning of the story, and hurling it through the window.

The title of the book is taken from an American children’s nursery rhyme:

Wire, briar, limber-lock

Three geese in a flock

One flew east, one flew west

And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.

It can be argued that Bibbit flew in one direction, McMurphy in another, and Bromden flew “over the cuckoo’s nest” toward freedom.

Both the book and the film stand the test of time because at the heart of each is the relevant and timeless struggle between individual rights and a dictatorship. The late '60s and early '70s were ready for the story as cultural conflicts with feminism and the Vietnam War were inescapable. The new millennium is just as ripe for revisiting One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, as we're all aware that individual freedoms are still being suppressed by governments around the world.

Luckily there’s always room for that one person just nutty and brave enough to question a smug and oppressive authority – albeit hopefully with less tragic results. Both Kesey and Forman do a beautiful job of bringing this character to readers and the viewing audience.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.