Released: 1975
Directed by: Milos Forman
Wiki Submitted by: Sara Lohmeyer

Note: This Wiki does contain spoilers, so if you have not yet watched the film, I encourage you to do so before reading the following passages.

Short Synopsis:

This 1975 Academy-Award winning American drama was directed by Milos Forman and stars Jack Nicholson as Randall Patrick McMurphy, a rebellious con who is serving time in prison for statutory rape. McMurphy wants so badly to get out of prison duty (which mostly consists of yard work) that he fakes insanity in order to be moved to a mental hospital. After all, a stay in a cushy institution is better than slaving away all day in a prison. Unfortunately, he soon finds himself in a different kind of prison, as the mental ward is overseen by the cold, sadistic tyrant Nurse Ratched. Her rules and regulations suppress the spirits of the other patients and develop an oppressive dark cloud over the entire ward. Soon, McMurphy finds himself in the middle of the conflict, hoping to bring his zest for life and defiant spirit into the hospital by attempting to show the patients that life needn’t always be so depressing. However, Nurse Ratched sees him as an imminent danger to the stifling order in her ward and works diligently and cruelly to suppress him. The movie also stars Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli and Danny DeVito. The film is an adaptation of the novel by Ken Kesey.

Nurse Ratched's Regime:
In this scene, McMurphy has begged Nurse Ratched to let the group watch the World Series on television. They had voted previously with no luck, as none of the patients understood what was happening. After some coersion, McMurphy successfully gets his ward mates to vote for watching the game, but Nurse Ratched won't let that happen so easily. Still, thanks to McMurphy's defiance, the group gets to experience
a real ball game.

Film Review:

I watched this movie years ago in my attempt to view as many “classic” films as I could. It would soon become one of my favorite movies of all time, having touched my humanity to the core.

I have not read the original novel, but from what I researched, the novel is narrated by Chief Bromden, and has him as the main focus of the plotline (Gordon 155). In the movie, however, Nicholson’s character McMurphy is the protagonist around which all the actions occurs, and the Chief merely exists as a showcase of 1) the oppresion of Native Americans by the government and 2) the lengths to which mental institutions have ruined people’s lives.

The film starts out a little slow, but for a good reason, showing life in the mental institution before McMurphy’s arrival. Existence is painfully mundane, the meds are abundant, and order prevails. However, once McMurphy steps foot in the hospital, he immediately begins to bleed life into a dead atmosphere by questioning Nurse Ratched’s techniques for proper “care”. Once again, Jack Nicholson steals the show as R.P. McMurphy, instantly bringing his carefree spirit into the hospital with his first signature yelp. In fact, according to the commentary on the DVD disc, director Milos Forman is quoted as saying, “Nicholson is not an actor but a miracle. He is McMurphy in real life.” It is evident in the film how this observation could be true, as one could easily see Nicholson’s coy smile and affinity for young, beautiful women being taken off of the screen and into real life. Nicholson’s McMurphy is such a force in the film that it is hard to focus on the other key players, but this examination plays right into the central theme of the film: McMurphy brings zeal and rebellion into the ward, finally instilling in these mental patients that they no longer have to bleed into the background of life, as the actors tend to do once Nicholson takes over the joint.

Nevertheless, there are fantastic performances by Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched), Will Sampson (Chief Bromden), Sydney Lassick (Cheswick), and Brad Dourif (Billy Bibbit). Nurse Ratched has got to be one of the greatest film villians of all-time, and Fletcher's performance is so understated and brilliant that all she has to do is use that "calm" voice, that cold stare, and that calculating dialogue to have any self-respecting human being shaking in their boots. Also, Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit, especially in the following scene, is the most pitiable, sweet, and innocent character in American film I have seen in a while. He is so obsessed with love and purity that he has landed himself in a mental institution for essentially stalking a woman with whom he was infatuated.

In the following scene, Billy has been caught with his pants down (literally) after a night of debauchery that McMurphy instigated within the hospital. He begs Nurse Ratched not to tell his mother of his actions, but the sadistic caregiver will stop at nothing to humiliate and belittle him.

Poor Billy

Also, Will Sampson as Chief Bromden gives an often subtly comical, but ultimately heartbreaking performance as a Native American who, after seeing his father being "worked on" (in the novel, his father had been humiliated by the government) falls into mental illness. He pretends to be deaf and mute and fools the entire staff and his fellow patients into thinking he is a "dumb Indian." He ultimately becomes McMurphy's confidant as well as his "escape" from the institutional life.

Overall, despite some of the slow, prolonged moments without dialogue (like the extended focus on Nicholson's face the morning after the hospital party), the movie is a triumph and is one of the greatest American films of its time. I would recommend it to anyone who wants an honest look at mental hospitals, and who wants to see some extraordinary performances by Nicholson, Fletcher, and the rest of the wonderful cast.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great example of a totalitarian society on film, as well as an honest look at the stereotypes associated with mental institutions. One would not immediately see this movie as an example of a totalitarian society, but upon closer inspection, it is not just a film about a group of mental patients and their overbearing caregiver. It is a movie about a group of people that are attempting to overthrow a tyrannical and oppressive regime. Author Thomas Milhorn agrees that “Nurse Ratched is more of a dictator than a nurse; she is the embodiment of everything inhumane and unfeeling” (141). She runs the hospital as a tyrant might run a country: her way is the ONLY way of doing things, and she has the ultimate say in what she thinks is best for the inmates. McMurphy is her opposite, put in the middle of the hospital to metaphorically (and in the case of Chief literally) free them from their oppression. Author Sheldon Gellar describes McMurphy as “Nurse Ratched’s nemesis: a fiercely independent rebel” (25). In fact many would agree that McMurphy acts as the group’s liberator, as author Clar Doyle agrees when he says the story is truly about liberation (114). He mentions that in the literary sense, McMurphy is a tragic hero that sacrifices himself for others, and the author also says that the plot is a great example of the “repressive power of conformity” (114). Essentially, in a totalitarian society, the entire populace conforms to a set of rules formed by a single oppressor, whether or not it is for their own good (which in most cases, it is not.) Therefore, the group of mental patients along with McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest” acts as the oppressed, and are forced into following orders by the dictating Nurse Ratched that ultimately lead to their undoing.

Furthermore, the film showcases the stereotypes associated with mental institutions, especially in regards to the patient care by Nurse Ratched. In quite a bit of fiction, both in novels and on screen, psychiatrists and heads of hospitals are often portrayed as cold and calculating; “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is no exception. In fact, the stereotypical treatment McMurphy undergoes after the outburst against Nurse Ratched leaves the audience with the classic horrific imagery as he is left a vegetable after the crazy nurses and doctors do what they think is best for him. Electroshock therapy is condemned in many novels and films, like in the novel “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath and in modern films such as “Requiem for a Dream”, “Girl, Interrupted” and “The Jacket”. In “Cuckoo’s Nest”, electroshock therapy is used to treat uncooperative patients, but the real procedure that renders Nicholson’s character a lifeless drone is what author David Dempsey describes as a “prefrontal lobotomy that leaves his eyes ‘smoked, gray, and deserted like blown fuses.’” (519)

Electroshock Therapy Scene with McMurphy

Further stereotypes include the women in the film that are either cold like Nurse Ratched and her sidekick, or ditsy like Candy. Author William VanWert agrees that McMurphy's girlfriend and the woman he brought to entertain the patients are easily manipulated by men and just act "pretty and dumb" throughout the whole movie (One Flew Over...An Aerial View..).

The mental patients in the ward are also stereotypical, as they are prone to psychotic outbursts, random thoughts and rambling dialogue. Author Jan Bialostocki describes the characters in the film as “full of anguish, contracted with pain, exploding into sudden laughter, thoughtless, shadowed by a great effort of associating ideas and suddenly disinterested” (159). This description of the mental patients in the film fits most of society’s stereotypes about how they may act. Some of it is also true, as many of the patients reflect real-life mental illnesses like schizophrenia and severe paranoia.

Final Thoughts

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a brilliant film, made even better by the amazing performances of the actors, and the fantastic directing by Foreman. I hope you enjoyed my humble analysis and if you haven’t seen the film already…DO IT!

Intersting Facts About the Film From

Many extras were authentic mental patients.

Director Milos Forman relied heavily on reaction shots to pull more characters into scenes. In some group therapy scenes, there were ten minutes of Jack Nicholson's reactions filmed even if he had very little dialogue. The shot Louise Fletcher looking icily at Nicholson after he returns from shock therapy was actually her irritated reaction to a piece of direction from Forman.

Kirk Douglas, who owned the rights to the film, planned to star himself, but by the time they got around to making the film he was too old.

Louise Fletcher was so upset with the fact that the other actors could laugh and be happy while she had to be so cold and heartless that near the end of production she removed her dress and stood in only her panties to prove to the actors she was not "a cold-hearted monster".

During the EST scene, McMurphy says "A little dab will do ya" as the nurse is putting conductor gel on the side of his head. This phrase, not in the original script, is a reference to the advertising jingle of Brylcreem hair cream, which was a popular hair care product for men in the 1960s and 1970s.

This film won 5 Academy Awards including Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Actress (Fletcher) and Best Picture.

Works Cited


Białostocki, Jan. "Forman's Cuckoo's Nest, its Composition and Symbolism." Artibus et Historiae 2.3
(1981): 159-62. This article talks about Forman's use of camera angles and visual elements and describes the symbolism found within the movie.

Dempsey, David. "Shrinks and the Shrunken in Modern Fiction: The Psychotherapist as Villain." The

Antioch Review 46.4, T.C. Boyle: "The Devil and Irv Cherniske" (1988): 514-21. This article cites numerous occasions in which nurses, doctors, and therapists are seen as villians in fiction as well as film.

Sheldon Gellar. "The Ratched-McMurphy Model Revisited: A Critique of Participatory Development
Models, Strategies, and Projects." Issue: A Journal of Opinion 14 (1985): 25-8. This article struck me as an analysis of a communication techinque but focused upon the dialogue and action between Nurse Ratched and RP McMurphy.

Doyle, Clar. Raising Curtains on Education: Drama as a Site for Critical Pedagogy. Westport,
CT: Bergin & Garvey Paperback, 1993. Print. This is a book about plays (including Cuckoo's Nest), but has a great paragraph about the characters in the film.

Gordon, Suzanne. Nursing Against the Odds: How Health Care Cost Cutting, Media Sterotypes,

and Medical Hubris Undermine Nurses and Patient Care (Culture and Politics of Health

Care Work). Ithaca: Ilr Press, 2005. Print. This book is about nursing, but has a great section on the film and about Nurse Ratched's character.

Milhorn, H. Thomas. Writing Genre Fiction: A Guide to the Craft. New York: Universal

Publishers, 2006. Print. This book is about writing fiction, but the paragraph I referenced talked about the "underdog" of "Cuckoo's Nest" and the "villain" (Nurse Ratched).


"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)." Greatest Films - The Best Movies in Cinematic
History. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. <> This website has in-depth analysis of pretty much every movie you could ever think of. It provides detailed commentary on the dialogue.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d.
Web. 15 Nov. 2009. <> This website also has detailed information on many movies. It is well-known for it's quick references and fun trivia.

VanWert, William. ""One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, An Aerial View of the Nest"."
JumpCut. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2009.
<> This website is a sort of online journal with articles about cinema. This was a great article about the psychoanalysis of Cuckoo's Nest.