Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is sent to a mental institution so he can escape hard time in prison. What he believes to be a simple stint relaxing in a hospital suddenly becomes a fight for freedom. Instead of a prison Warden he has to contend with the heartless Nurse Ratchet (Louise Fletcher) and her demeaning ways. McMurphy believes the other patients are no different from the people outside of the hospital, and fights Nurse Ratchet’s rule to bring the prisoners their basic freedoms. At first he fought for simple pleasures, but he learns to fight for his friends and their rights to stand up as proud human beings.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” is the classic film based on the Ken Kesey novel. Kesey was a leading counter-culture figure in 1960’s America who often sought to break convention. Later in his life he would often have LSD parties (with people like the Grateful Dead) to expand his mind. He himself had gained inspiration for this story while actually working in a mental institution in Oregon. He believed the patients weren’t insane, but did not conform to society’s view of a “normal person.”
When the film was made a decade later, breaking convention was a very prevalent theme in America as Richard Nixon was standing down as president and the war in Vietnam was close to ending. This film became a voice of the times when America was looking for radical change.
Nurse Ratchet played by Louise Fletcher was voted by the AFI as one of film’s greatest villains. She controls the patients under the guise of care, but is really a power hungry, repressed woman putting these crazy men in their place. No matter how furious you may feel she always treats people in a composed condescending manner that only a heartless person can.
The supporting cast who includes Danny DeVito is also brilliant as many familiar character actors had their first outing as mental patients, and actually studied real patients at a hospital in Oregon. The book was written in the first person perspective of Chief Bromden, but this wasn’t used in the film. Nonetheless the actor Will Sampson gives an impressive performance both in his physically massive size, and also his subtle character development of a tortured man realizing his potential.
The film is shot rather uniquely even for 1975 the same year “Jaws” was released and two years before “Star Wars.” There are no camera tricks, not a hint of a special effect and with the exception of a few scenes remains entirely in the male ward of a hospital. Today when movies have characters that don’t even exist in the real world this may seem boring. However, this film works on emotional levels. Most of the shots are medium, or close-ups of the actors giving the viewer a claustrophobic feeling as if in the hospital themselves. You are forced to sit with the patients as Nurse Ratchet grills them on their failings. You can’t help but want to speak directly to the characters. It makes the film real.
In the end the film went on to garner 5 academy awards for best picture, best director, best actor, best actress, and best adapted screenplay. This hadn’t happened in 41 years since the Frank Capra movie “It Happened One Night.” Rumour has it that Ken Kesey was furious the movie wasn’t told in the first person perspective from the Chief Bromden character and vowed never to watch this film. Apparently Kesey never did see the film most people consider a classic and which he wrote.