One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Our First Look at Milos Forman

Throughout the course of this project, I’ve written some about fear, a very basic human emotion. This was particularly true about The Silence of the Lambs. That’s all that movie was about: fear. When it comes down to it, though, The Silence of the Lambs was a fear of the gruesome and the horrible.


This week’s movie plays off of the audience’s reaction to fear in a very different way. Milos Forman’s 1975 Best Picture winner, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is not a scary movie, but it might as well be. It plays off fear, but you don’t really understand it until the end.


The film’s fear is much simpler, and far more rooted within us. This movie deals with our fears of our own brains and what happens when we lose them, or if they don’t work like “normal” ones.


Jack Nicholson stars in this adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 book of the same name. And, even though he’s a convicted rapist, he’s a protagonist that we can sympathize with. He’s living out a part of his prison sentence in the Oregon State Hospital. Soon, he embodies our struggles not to become trapped within our own skulls and to exercise all the free will we can.


Nicholson’s character, RP McMurphy, takes the form of the free spirit who has to face “The Machine.” He flips the script on what a normal hero is. At the same time, though, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest sucks you in from the start as it tells it’s funny, sad, enraging, and devastatingly touching story.


Now, for the rest of the movie:



McMurphy first shows up at the Oregon State Hospital after serving a short portion of a sentence for statutory rape of a 15-year old girl. He doesn’t work as hard as other prisoners in his work camp. Therefore, he’s sent to the hospital for study and observation, to determine if he has a mental illness. Basically, he’s there to make sure he’s not faking it.


He soon crosses paths (and gets sideways with) Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher. Miss Ratched as she is called by the patients, is the de facto head of the ward within which McMurphy finds himself. Ratched is a very cool operator, but more on that in a bit.


Throughout his stay, McMurphy flaunts Ratched’s authority while also befriending many of his fellow patients. His antics become worse and worse and all the while, the hospital staff tries more and more terrible treatments to get him to stop.


During a session of group therapy, McMurphy learns that his stay in the ward has now become indefinite. He might never leave it or the watchful eyes of Miss Ratched.


During the course of the film’s narrative, as McMurphy’s story gets more and more complicated, so do the forces that are working against him. By the time the movie reaches its climax, it’s suddenly  McMurphy against the machine, the bureaucracy, the hydra. I equated it to being a political prisoner in the Soviet Union; you’re powerless to do anything other than wait and watch as your humility is slowly stripped away. This was the scary part. It was almost like watching your own death: it’s sad, sure, but then you realize that the story (and life, for that matter) just keeps spinning. 1.



Like I mentioned above, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is based on the 1962 book by Ken Kesey. He helped write the screenplay, too, which one Best Adapted Screenplay.


During my viewing of this movie, my main observation about the dialogue is the amount of conflict within it. McMurphy is out protagonist, yes, but he’s also one heck of a pot-stirrer and trash talker. He shakes up everything, particularly during group therapy and he seems to get his rocks off watching all the chaos. The poor other patients are always fighting against each other, often after McMurphy’s prodding.


Because of this, though, it allows the action to follow the dialogue, rather than the other way around, throughout most of the film. Therefore, a greater emphasis is placed on the drama in what we hear, rather than what we see.


Compare this to superhero movies of today. All the speaking is normally a reaction to something else that’s happening. This is fine, by the way, but when that writing style is flipped, it makes film the better for it. 1.




The opening shot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is of Nurse Ratched driving to work. The music, played by a bowed saw and a wine glass, evokes a very eerie sense of the upcoming film. Then, that’s almost all the music you hear for the first hour or so.


The hospital is in which the movie takes place (more on that below) is very organized and sterile. There is no music in hospital because of this. The silence is fitting.


Filling the gap caused by the lack of score are simple sound effects that you would expect people to make when they’re in groups: coughing, throat clearing, chair suffling. This was brilliant, really. It reinforces the emptiness in a mental hospital. 1.


Set Design

When it comes to the actual physical world of the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the film is a very faithful adaptation. Shot entirely in Oregon, and mostly at the Oregon State Hospital, the movie commits to a good representation of setting, rather than depending on good set design in general.


When it comes to the hospital, where most of the movie takes place, the wards look exactly like what you’d expect: very sterile, very uniform, and very basic. I loved this approach because it helps to keep me from being distracted with the set pieces.


In fact, during the film’s production, many of the patients were used as members of the crew. The actors even picked patients and shadowed them, living their struggles as they do, and even sleeping the wards. 1.



As you can imagine, a mental hospital is designed to be a hospital, not a movie set. Therefore, shooting in such tight quarters can prove to be difficult. To compensate for this, a bulk of the movie takes place in the large ward common room where the men gather to conduct group therapy sessions.


This, however, does not mean that the cinematography is bad. In fact, it’s the opposite. Like many other movies on our list, eyes of the camera are placed in very basic situations, using tried and true shooting methods. However, director of photography Haskell Wexler (who received the nomination for Best Cinematography) leaves his own mark on the how the film presents itself.


The story is an incredibly personal one. It centers around a man (McMurphy) as he and his fellow patients suffer through their various illnesses. Each of these men have a personal story to tell about themselves and the camera helps to accomplish that. It gets right up in their faces. You can see every single detail about them very clearly. These men, when they’re on camera, are obviously the focus of attention, but they also scream their own stories. This is part of what makes this movie so fantastic is its depth in all areas, including the cinematography. 1.



One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest featured a number of great performances and even the theatrical debut of Christopher Lloyd. But, without a doubt, the two strongest faces in the film are that of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.


Nicholson won the Oscar for Best Actor for his representation of RP McMurphy, the convicted felon who is sent to the mental hospital for examination, even though he doesn’t actually have a mental illness.


From the moment that McMurphy arrives in the ward, you get the feeling that he’s one who doesn’t take life too seriously. Hilariously clever and devilishly charismatic, McMurphy always tries to shake up the establishment and ruffle the feathers of the top brass at the hospital. He breaks the patients out for a day of fishing once, and always tries to start pick-up games of basketball outside the walls.


Yet, McMurphy’s story is certainly the most tragic of all the patients at the hospital. He’s the only patient who exhibits, flaunts, even, free will, and even some sexual expression,  in a place in which both are supressed. He continues to push back against the gears until he’s excoriated for it, caught up in the machine and spit out the other side.


Working against McMurphy is Miss Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher. Fletcher won the Best Actress for this role, too. Ratched is the head nurse in that particular ward of the hospital and she is the perfect villain to McMurphy. At every turn, she vehemently, yet frigidly, opposes every move that McMurphy makes. She is the ultimate robotic nurse, keeping to schedules and routines like they’re going out of style. She hardly loses her temper, and when she does, it’s after a very long build-up.


I truly don’t believe that this movie is designed to send some sort of political message, but I did get some political vibes from it, particularly as it relates to differences in ideologies. Ratched represents the Communist Party, The Man, and the machine. She’s the wheel that McMurphy constantly pushes to go his direction, and it’s her punishment that McMurphy receives. She consistently squashes all self expression with her cold and uncaring manner.  1.



Milos Forman directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and it’s the first of two Best Picture winners he directed. The next one, Amadeus from 1984, is next week. Forman was “imported” from Europe to direct this film, and given the tremendous risk, it seemed to pay off for producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz.


I’ve worked all week on trying to figure out how I felt about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This is not a film that I would normally watch, one that I would go out of my way to see, yet, I’m glad I did see it. It’s one of the best films on this list. I was hooked from the start and watched most of it with my mouth agape, amazed at the narrative force present in the film.


When I dove deeper, I started listing out all the themes in this film, and the list kept growing and growing. That’s the mark of a good film. First of all, the 1970s, much like the 1960s, was a very tumultuous decade in America. The culture seemed to be at war with itself. Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran were just a few big stories to come out of that decade. But, like we saw in Kramer vs. Kramer, America was changing significantly socially, as well. This movie reflects that. Individualism and self expression comes face-to-face and clashes with tradition, routine, and the bureaucracy. This culture shift is literally personified in McMurphy and Ratched. This not only creates conflict, but it also creates a great fear inside each of the game’s players. The fear of being on the wrong side of this war is real in society and it’s very real in the film, too. You can either side with McMurphy and incur the wrath of Miss Ratched, or you can comply with the authority, but you’re stripped of what makes you a human in the first place. There’s some very Orwellian ideas right there.


Additionally, the film plays off the ideas of human bonding and fraternity. The men in McMurphy’s unit become just that, a unit. These are the men McMurphy spends every single day with, he eats, sleeps, and showers with them. It’s obvious that he’ll become one of them, and learn to respect and love each of them in his own way. The bonding is what keeps us sane when all other human qualities are humiliated out of us. These men give us hope for the future of this particular story.  


Yes, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful force of narrative movie making, but it’s also a deep reflection into very basic human needs and instincts. That’s why I loved this film and it’s one of the top movies on this list of Best Picture winners. 1.


Bonus Points

I’ll give an extra point to plot, acting, and directing.


Final Score: 10/10


Oscar Facts

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won the 48th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 29, 1976 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It beat out Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, and Nashville for Best Picture that year. The award was presented by Audrey Hepburn and accepted by Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz, producers. In total, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was nominated for nine Oscars, and won five: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. It is one of only three movies to win the “Big 5” awards. The other two are It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs.


The ceremony is notably as it took place on the same night that the Bob Knight-coached and undefeated Indiana Hoosiers won the NCAA basketball championship in Philadelphia. Additionally, Jaws is one of only two movies to win every category that it was nominated for except Best Picture. Traffic in 2000 is the other. The ceremony was hosted by Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, George Segal, Goldie Hawn, and Gene Kelly.


Parting Thoughts

Next week, I’ll take a look at Milos Forman’s second Best Picture winner: Amadeus from 1984. After that, it’s The French Connection, Braveheart, Grand Hotel, Crash, and The Artist.



  1. I enjoyed your review Keltin! I haven’t seen this movie yet but think I’d like to someday, even if it is sad.


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