One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
An aerial view of the nest

by William VanWert

from Jump Cut, nos. 10-11, 1976, pp. 51-52
copyright 1976, 2004, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an updated ideological blend of KING OF HEARTS and COOL HAND LUKE: the U.S. antihero who “won't play ball” with the system, who is destined to self-sacrifice so that others might abstain from playing ball too. Yet, despite the fact that the film is a one-role virtuoso vehicle for Jack Nicholson as Randall Patrick McMurphy, the impact of the film lies elsewhere.

Let’s start with the stereotypes. The depiction of minority groups in the film is uniformly coded and oppressive in its macho coloring.(1) Most of the ward workers in the hospital are blacks—specifically, black males who conform to one of two types: the Washington type, who thinly disguises his scorn toward Nurse Ratched, who enjoys inflicting physical punishments on the men and who enters into a power struggle of verbal virility with McMurphy; and the Turkle type, the older, submissive black who can be “bought” with booze and a white woman. Between these two extremes there are no images of blacks in the film.

Likewise, the same two types apply for the women. Either they are, like Nurse Ratched, cold, calculating, cruel and unfeeling in their devotion to inhumane therapies or they are, like McMurphy’s “girlfriend” and her friend, pretty, dumb and easily manipulated by the males around them. Again, there is no in between image of women in the film, which is to say that there are no real women. No real blacks, no real women, only white males and their fantasies.

The one exception to the above stereotypes is the Chief, the only Native American in this morality play. In Kesey’s novel the Chief is the narrator, the filter through which we view McMurphy and the others. Thus, the novel is also a plea from the Native American subculture, from the most oppressed of U.S. minorities. The film carries no such plea. In the novel the Chief ultimately inherits the legacy of his father, one who died flying over the cuckoo’s nest. The father is alluded to momentarily in the film, but it is clear that here the Chief inherits from McMurphy, not from his father. The elevation of McMurphy from catalyst to prime mover creates a fundamental ideology in the film, very thinly disguised as mental wards and therapy games.

In essence, then, the film is a metaphor for dying white male potency, an elegy to vanishing sexual prowess. The metaphor and elegy are not unlike those to be found in the films of Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich, Richard Serafian and Robert Altman. All the participants are male, all who can communicate are “voluntary” (they have committed themselves), almost all who can communicate have sexual problems. What does R.P. McMurphy bring to this community of psychological invalids? By his own admission, his entire life has been devoted to fighting and fucking, the aggressive male pursuit of happiness. His adversaries In the mental ward are monsters of invisible Freudian analysis, administered by castrating females and blacks: verbally by Nurse Ratched, physically by the blacks. The mental ward becomes a kind of awkward microcosm. The real issues at stake are not those of deciphering what’s sane and what’s not, what’s therapeutic and what’s not, but rather what is the white male’s dream and what’s not.

McMurphy offers the “inmates” tough talk and quick action of the variety espoused by Cassevetes in HUSBANDS. He hustles cigarettes in the poker games, wagers on uprooting the drinking fountain in the shower stalls for a breakaway, teaches them how to play basketball, gives them firsthand accounts of the World Series, takes them fishing on a stolen boat, gets them drunk and gives them women. Instead of the analytical “discussions” with Nurse Ratched, McMurphy proposes a kind of bioenergetics play therapy, both in and out of the ward. Instead of the “mother transfer” by which most of the men can re-become boys in Nurse Ratched’s care, McMurphy proposes not a transfer of responsibilities but rather a rejection of responsibilities in favor of the male fantasies of sports, booze and easy women. His sacrificial macho—Messiah cures the gays, deflowers the virgins and makes the mute speak.

This ultimate male bonding is only effective when shared. It becomes obvious as the film progresses that McMurphy is neither interested in self-improvement nor anxious for escape. The outside world is as much a prison as the prison itself for him. Clearly, he is partial to and in love with the “nuts” he befriends. The disguise that this friendship takes is that of an alternate asylum. When questioned by the man at the docks, McMurphy responds that he and the inmates are all “doctors” from the asylum, the reversal of roles being clearly more important than any differences in the roles themselves. Rather than make his own escape, McMurphy stays with the men, knowing that they will be caught. He even abbreviates his sex when one of the men has a fish on the line. His second opportunity for escape is equally self-aborted. He gives his “girlfriend” to Billy, the stuttering virgin obsessed by his mother.

Then, inexplicably, he and the Chief, along with the other inmates, are found sleeping in the morning by an irate Nurse Ratched. It is as though he never wanted to escape in the first place. His decision to remain in both instances, is weighted in terms of this male bonding of white males, in terms of liberating them from physical dominance (the blacks) and psychological dominance (women like Nurse Ratched). The price of this liberation is the impossibility of any return to analytical therapy and voluntary self-incarceration, as evidenced by Billy (who commits suicide) and the Chief (who smothers McMurphy with a pillow and escapes).

The ideological seriousness of this struggle is conveyed by the typing of the adversaries. But the plausibility of the struggle, that which makes CUCKOO'S NEST a very powerful film despite its stereotyping, comes from the self—restraint imposed by Forman on both his camera and his editing and the freedom given to Nicholson and the other “patients” to act and improvise. The camera is steady but seldom intrusive; the editing, except for one or two voice over links, does not call attention to itself. Close ups are frequently used, but seldom are they overly dramatized to convey what the dialogue cannot. Given the time to act and the room to develop a scene, Nicholson and the others establish a kind of male bonding or camaraderie beyond the script. The hoopla of the imaginary World Series is an example of this kind of closeknit, free acting, in which lines like Nicholson’s gleeful, “Somebody get me a fuckin’ weiner before my throat gives out,” are delivered as “throw away” lines.

Thus, even when it is politically questionable, this image of cuckolded masculinity is at moments downright appealing, and it remains a seemingly durable myth. Yet, one must ultimately wonder why, given a distance of some fourteen years, Forman did not place a critical perspective on Kesey’s tract. Perhaps he still feels ill at ease with U.S. cultural values and mores. Perhaps he was content to bypass the implications of Kesey’s novel in favor of Hollywood’s preference for the obvious. Neither reason would explain the political naïveté of the film, especially in light of the lay person’s raised consciousness concerning blacks, women and alternative therapies to psychoanalysis in the years since the novel was first published.


1. Editors’ note: The oppression of mental patients is a real political problem, not simply a convenient metaphor, as Kesey and Forman would have it, for thwarted (white) male supremacy. By and large, the administrators and doctors who dominate such institutions are white ruling class males, while female patients outnumber their male counterparts two to one. Accordingly, men dictate the standards of “health” in such environments—quite naturally asserting their class prerogatives to quell expressions of stridency, militancy, autonomy or other “hostile” reactions from female inmates. The work force of attendants and nurses receive token compensation for the very sizable services they perform. Mostly blacks, latinos and working class whites, they are alternatively patronized and bullied by the elitist corps of doctors. (So it seems that the workers’ abuse of the patients is a logical consequence of their place in the rigid pecking order of the hospital.) Rather than recognizing these facts, Forman chose to reverse the terms of the power dialectic—employing a strategy of “blaming the victim.”