What is the nature of madness? This is a question asked by many storytellers and thinkers and still puzzled over. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dares to ask a far more important and more difficult question: what is the nature of sanity? Propelled by a typically charismatic but unusually organic Jack Nicholson in his prime, as convict Randall P. McMurphy who arrives at a mental institution and becomes embroiled in a feud with the domineering and dictatorial Nurse Ratched over the fragile, impressionable Billy Bibbit. Around them is a nexus of complex and sympathetic characters who find themselves caught between the unstoppable force of McMurphy and the immovable object of Ratched. Adapted from Ken Kesey’s spellbinding and messy sixties novel.
Kesey’s complex moral philosophy is clear, the ward acts as microcosm of American society in the midst of a profound cultural shift. McMurphy espouses all which Ratched rebuffs. Ratched is set up as the brutal caretaker of the desperate group of men, dominating them utterly and humiliating them in public ‘debates’ about their most intimate details. Initially the men of the ward bow to her desires, encouraging each other and fighting between themselves. Throughout the film, the influence of McMurphy begins to tell, as he completes rebellions at various stages of severity and success, refusing to take his medicine and taking the patients on a fishing trip among others. Ostensibly the film asks us to judge McMurphy, is he mentally ill, or is he sane? Similarly it asks us to judge the other characters similarly and makes some presumptions about our conclusions; but really the question as to whether McMurphy is insane is a inconsequential one, if one accepts the notion that the ward is a allusion to American society in the sixties. If McMurphy represents the counterculture movement, as it is reasonable to assume, the film’s plot can be summarised thus, the counterculture movement is the spark from which will grow the fire that will incinerate all that is old and wretched and aggressive and unfair, but the counterculture movement is just as it seems, a movement, it may only move a certain distance and then stop; the true rebellion comes when counterculture reveals in the establishment all which those previously crushed under its jackboot could not appreciate. The uglinesses of the system they had previously been oblivious to, at this point the middle classes, the standard-bearers of the zeitgeist and the consensus will begin themselves to rebel against the established authority; those imprisoned with no real understanding of their symptoms or crimes will at once understand that those conditions of imprisonment do not exist and their confinement is unjustified. There will be casualties, it is at the point of general understanding of the counterculture ideals that the establishment will become more straightforwardly and outwardly violent and unpleasant in an attempt to suppress what is a spreading vocal majority, but these attempts will only make plainer the violence inherent in the system and prompt a greater rebellion. Ultimately, the counterculture will be sanitised by the establishment, and at this zenith moment, comes freedom, as the mass of the zeitgeist rises up and does what the relatively small counterculture movement could never do and destroys the walls of the prison the establishment has built. This can be understood as the thesis of Kesey’s book and the film. This political message doesn’t come with any baggage, usually it is easy to pinpoint where a metaphor ends and a character arc begins, but in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it isn’t. The symbolic framework that can be placed over the characters simply adds a second dimension of meaning to what is a strong and compelling tale of men existing together, much like a war film. Men dealing with factors out of their control and a deeply powerful character driven narrative that doesn’t even need a subtext to make it work.
This is the political subtext and the allegorical meaning of the film, but it’s about more than that. It doesn’t pin itself to any specific moment or point, it doesn’t make grandiose statements, crucially McMurphy never has a speech. He is a character totally defined by his actions. A man firmly of principle to whom all action is acceptable when it is justified, but will uphold notions like democracy even when he sees them openly flouted by his opponent. And in Ratchet we have one of the all time great screen villains, a truly hateful mantis of a woman who uses her musclebound henchmen to execute her will when her own iron grasp of her patients psyche’s begins to slip. The loud playing of music is eerily reminiscent of psychological warfare used against the Vietnamese, the Iraqis and the Branch Davidians (although the film was made only in awareness of the first). The films greatest triumph in my opinion, is that it doesn’t have a straightforward message that can be neatly encapsulated and never argued. It is about human freedom from dictatorial control, the dignity of choice. What it is, is a film that doesn’t shout its statements but very quietly asks it’s questions.