When I first saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it was while studying for my Ph.D. at Loyola University Chicago. It was for a course on Film and Twentieth Century America, a course I went on to teach as well. The story does not end there, however. The movie was part of a sort of unit on the 1960s and 1970s, and it was seen in conjunction with reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. The book is a semi-biographical look at the life of Ken Kesey up to 1968 when it was published, which is enough time to tell you how lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), more commonly known as acid, became a part of the hippie or counterculture scene in the 1960s. It is as strange as you might expect. Ken Kesey was its west coast purveyor, and he was given access to the stuff during his college career through a part time job he performed in a psychiatric ward. His time spent in this employment formed the basis of his hit novel, that became the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
We are introduced to the mental institution that forms the setting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest through the eyes of Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson). He is in custody on a prison farm for having sex with an under-aged girl, and feigns insanity to get out of word detail. The ward he ends up in is under the cold yet calm rule of Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who leads a support group every day for the “inmates” there in order to potentially help them conquer their problems. McMurphy is disruptive from the start. He gambles and it is suggested that he cheats his fellow patients out of their money and cigarettes. When he first meets “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), McMurphy basically makes fun of his race by acting in a stereotypically “Indian” way. Oddly enough, he also also the only person that seems to treat the other patients with any sort of dignity. Each one clearly has their own problems, McMurphy included. We are told that he had been in trouble with the law a few times. Yet with the Chief, McMurphy puts the quite tall Native American on his basketball team and even gets the normally quiet giant to talk. At one point, McMurphy sneaks onto a bus that those with certain privileges took out on excursions, and takes them all deep sea fishing. Of course, with this last stunt it was really just a cover for him to get with Candy (Marya Small), yet he spends a great deal of time baiting their hooks and helping them reel in their catches. The main battle, though, is between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. It is evident that he will not simply lie down for her, as the others do, and his encouragement of the others to stand up for themselves is seen as a threat by her. The one thing she has over him is that he is not there by choice. Many of the others can leave at any point, but instead submit to this treatment because they believe it is for their own good. Nurse Ratched preys on their fears, telling them that only with her can they get better, and that to leave would only isolate them and increase dangerous feelings of loneliness. The final showdown comes after a raucous party engineered by McMurphy on the ward when he sneaks Candy and another woman in for a night of drinking and other forms of promiscuous behavior. The promiscuity comes from Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a painfully shy young man with a tragic stutter who develops a crush on Candy. When Nurse Ratched discovers the two of them in bed together, she threatens to tell Billy’s mother, and the shame of this potential outcome leads Billy to kill himself. Seeing Billy dead on the floor causes McMurphy to snap, and in a moment he is on top of Nurse Ratched with his hands around her neck, intent on choking the life out of her. Luckily he is stopped before a murder takes place, but it also results in him being lobotomized. When he returns to the ward, a shell of his former self, the Chief cannot bear to see such a proud man cowed as he is now. Hence he takes it upon himself to suffocate McMurphy, then breaks free of the ward and runs off into the hills.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an incredibly sad movie. I suppose it goes without saying that this is not how such institutions should be run, and I am thankful that there have been changes in the way people with these kinds of conditions are treated. While watching these poor people, I could not help but think of the way the Catholic Church has approached people with mental issues for centuries. Traditionally, it has been society that has treated such people with contempt, and the Church (at least in the West) has been their only refuge. Neither did those who cared for those in such need attempt to exercise an iron-fisted rule over their daily lives as Nurse Ratched. It definitely is presented that she has some kind of need to be a god to them, controlling their movements and when and what they are allowed to watch on television. Still, as a Christian, I cannot condone McMurphy’s attempted murder (or the Chief’s seeming mercy killing, for that matter). In the end, all I can suggest to you, dear reader, is that there is an alternative to the suffering you see in this film, and that there has been one for some time.
There are some that find parts of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest funny. I am not among them, and it is a difficult film to watch given the subject matter and how it ends. It might have been somewhat more palatable had McMurphy taken the opportunity he so clearly had to escape at the film’s climactic moment, just before Billy’s death. His act is presented as a defense against Nurse Ratched’s cruelty, and yet for most of the movie he seems intent to leave them behind anyway. I guess McMurphy’s act gives his character more of an arc, showing that he ultimately learned to care about people. But as a Catholic who seeks to protect life, I fervently wish he could have learned this lesson another way.