Society is based on social conventions that can be more or less strict. When people deviate from accepted standards they are often pushed away. It doesn’t really matter which are the reasons for their “misbehaviour”. If they commit a crime, they are sent to prison. If their mind is in disorder, they are sent to mental or nursing homes. They are put out of the way and out of sight of normal people under the double cover of protecting society from potentially dangerous influences and of helping the person concerned to become functional again. The result is the same: they are marginalized. And often they are muzzled and eventually crushed, too.
In the Veterans’ Hospital where Ken Kesey worked for a while in the late 1950s he had seen in what a disrespectful way people were treated and he transposed his experience into fiction. His best-selling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came out in 1962 and was adapted for the stage already the year after. In the 1970s the originally Czech director Miloš Forman made a film from Ken Kesey’s novel that became legendary, and not just because it was one of few that ever won all five major Oscars.One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture of 1975, Best Director (Miloš Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher) and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay (Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman).
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest tells the story of Randall Patrick McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) who – as the spectator learns only later – had been sentenced to prison for statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old girl, but preferred to feign mental illness in order to avoid the work detail. In the beginning of the film McMurphy is brought to a mental home for evaluation which is exactly what he wanted. At first he is thrilled because he expects it to be fun to stay among all those crazy people, to watch them and to share their assumed freedom. Soon he realizes, though, that in fact he leapt out of the frying-pan into the fire.
Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher) has established a strict regime in her ward. Days follow a never changing routine that includes medication, the drowning sound of classical music from the ward room preventing normal conversation and something that is supposed to be group therapy, but that is above all humiliating. McMurphy soon challenges her authority and tries to rouse the other patients from their fearful lethargy. After some struggle including an unauthorized deep sea fishing trip he succeeds in making his mates livelier and more active. Then he learns from one of the gloating orderlies that having been committed to the mental home he can be kept there for as long as the nurses and doctors judge right. In addition, he becomes aware of the fact that most others stay there voluntarily which means that they are allowed to leave any time they want. From then on McMurphy’s power of resistance is sinking.
When McMurphy tries to calm another patient during the group therapy, he and the Native American “Chief” Bromden (played by Will Sampson), who is a big man and comes to his help, get into a fight with the orderlies and are sent to electroconvulsive therapy. While waiting for their treatment the Chief reveals to McMurphy that he isn’t deaf and mute as everybody believes. Back in the ward McMurphy confides to the Chief that he’s planning to flee from the mental home because he feels that he can’t bear it much longer without really going crazy. That’s the point when things begin to go terribly wrong for McMurphy…
For modern standards the plot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is slow, but this only emphasizes the oppressive atmosphere in the mental home. The film differs from the novel on which it is based, since “Chief” Bromden isn’t the narrator. Instead most of the plot focuses on the battle of wills between McMurphy, the rebellious and maladjusted mind, and nurse Ratched, the self-righteous and inflexible authority. Today the situation in mental homes may no longer be as bad as depicted in this film from 1975. Patients’ rights have gained much importance, and yet, the basic theme of authority and its abuse is very up-to-date.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a great film to watch. It makes think of how easily we step into the trap of patronizing others for their own good... or do we really do it for our convenience?