“When you lose your laugh you lose your footing!” – Reflecting on ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ 45 years later
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'
“But I tried, didn’t I? Goddammit, at least I did that.”
An astounding 45 years since it saw the light of the day, Miloš Forman’s masterpiece holds up brilliantly even today, perhaps more so than ever before. Exploring the theme of freedom against the confines of society, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of misfits challenging the morality of established order. With its universal appeal that has transcended time and simple, poetic storytelling amidst all the madness, this film is now widely regarded as one of world cinema’s most respected and greatest, and deservingly so.
Miloš Forman’s film, an adapted screenplay from Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, is a film about rebellion, one that is set only within the most fitting of places, a mental institution in Oregon during the 1960s. Their newest occupant is Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a criminal who seeks to find leisure within his own sentencing away from hard labour 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. On reflection, this is the sort of film that only a filmmaker like Miloš Forman could have made, having previously created pictures that satirised authoritarian ideals during his time in Czechoslovakia and, clearly, he didn’t lose 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.
It reflects brilliantly the question we pose ourselves every once in a blue moon: Is it better to gloss over deep issues to enjoy life as much as possible and live lightly, or is it better to know oneself fully and completely; to examine the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ to live a meaningful life? Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive, but they come awfully close. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest adds the additional hardship of possibly losing the ability to think on the question at all. McMurphy can’t quite comprehend during his stay at the institution, and how many of us are just like him? How many of us hit a brick wall when it comes to understanding mental illness? Like McMurphy, we want to shake it out of them. We like to think there is nothing a good laugh and a good party will not cure. Like McMurphy, we like to think that all nests are basically the same everywhere.
“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.”
Nurse Ratched and McMurphy declare a cold war on one another by attempting to exert their influence over the patients in the hospital. Ratched attempts to retain control and stability for her charges while McMurphy tries to shake up his new buddies and help them to assert themselves and to live a little. The battle itself is fought on two fronts. The first front lays between McMurphy wanting to do whatever he likes versus the social institutions that attempt to place limitations on his behaviour.
There is a constant sense of involvement, and the increasingly tense atmosphere is perfectly executed by Forman’s impeccable pacing. Bromden’s character is more in the background than he would come across like in the novel, and there lies the fault. The depth in the relationship between Bromden and McMurphy is found to be slightly lacking. That depth is necessary to feel the dramatic conclusion to its full effect. As a film, however, it borders on perfection on all levels.
Jack Nicholson is the first actor you might think of as a leader of mental patients and therefore he feels like a natural choice for the role. As usual, the man delivers the kind of unique performance we’ve come to expect of him. A performance filled with emotion, humour and depth. On the other side, we have Louise Fletcher as the antagonist Miss Ratchet, a stern, calculating and empathy lacking character, who Fletcher pulls of without a hitch. With Brad Dourif as a nervous stutterer, Will Sampson as a deaf and dumb Native American, Sydney Lassick as a childlike man, Danny DeVito in his finest reprisal, and a few other well-known faces in the supporting cast and genuine mental-patients filling the roles of extras; it could definitely be said that this film is perfectly acted.
Every solitary frame is filled with vivid, eccentric and fully realised (if not so obvious at first sight, in some cases) humanity. And that is what the film is all about: humanity, and how we deal with it in the company of others. From the grand escapade of the inmates that just begins inside a school bus, to the sparse yet significant music by Jack Nitzsche, to its utterly moving finale, this is a prodigious film that will keep on talking to the freedom in our souls as long as there is life on earth.