Study Guide

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Introduction


Release Year: 1975

Genre: Drama

Director: Miloš Forman

Writer: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, Ken Kesey (novel)

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher


So what's it take to make a famous movie? Well you could start by winning all five major academy awards: Best Picture, Best Actor in Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Because that's exactly what One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nestdid when it came out in 1975. (It's also listed as the 33rd best movie of the twentieth century by the American Film Institute. So it's safe to say that the movie is a big deal.)

But awards and high ratings aren't everything. What makes this movie such an enduring classic is the way it explores how individual freedom and expression bump up against the forces of conformity and discipline. That's right: in some small way, we all live in the mental hospital that makes up the setting of this movie.

One day, a criminal named R.P McMurphy (that's Jack Nicholson, to you) gets sent to a mental hospital because he's gotten too out of control for the prison he's being kept in. Some people think he's faking insanity just to get a more comfortable spot to stay. But whether he's crazy or not, it's fair to say that McMurphy throws the careful routine of the hospital into total chaos.

  

McMurphy's nemesis at the hospital is the head nurse, Mildred Ratched. Nurse Ratched is determined to turn McMurphy into an obedient little boy no matter what it takes. He does his best to resist, and much of the movie's tension builds on their constant battle of the wills. In the end, this movie is about individual freedom versus social discipline, and it's pretty clear that the movie is not about to throw a party for the establishment.

So take that, Nurse Ratched.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest arrived on the scene in 1975 to just about as much critical acclaim as a movie can get. The reviewers raved, audiences flocked to theaters, and it was an Oscar juggernaut. Its early success might also account for One Flew's lasting legacy. This movie's still a favorite among film buffs, and is studied and imitated by everyone from college freshmen to modern movie moguls.

What is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest About and Why Should I Care?

Everybody's an outcast. Seriously. We bet at one point or another in your life, you've felt like there were people around you telling you to act more "normal" and to try and be just like everyone else. And we're betting that a big part of you just didn't want to. Well that's exactly the sort of thing that director Miloš Forman explores in 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

From the opening scene of this movie, we just know that R.P. McMurphy is going to have a tough time following the rules of the mental hospital he's just been committed to. He's a free spirit who, for better or worse, is going to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Now you could even say that McMurphy goes too far in his freedom, since he's been convicted of multiple assaults and a statutory rape. But disapproving of McMurphy's criminal behavior doesn't mean you have to side with Nurse Ratched, either. At the end of the day, there's probably a happy medium between McMurphy's violent independence and Ratched's soul-destroying brand of discipline.

For all his faults, McMurphy is definitely the hero of this movie. We're meant to admire his free spirit in spite of the bad things he's done. But as much as we admire him, we should probably admire Chief Bromden even more. After all, Chief is a much gentler man than McMurphy and he's the one who succeeds where McMurphy doesn't. He knows that no matter how bleak things may look and no matter how much it seems like we're just another ant on the anthill of existence, there's always a chance for us to show our freedom as individuals.

It's all a matter of whether we're brave enough to do so.

Trivia

How's this for a coincidence? Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, and Vincent Schiavelli all played mental patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And all three went on to play insane Batman villains. It makes you wonder if all three villains escaped from the same asylum… (Source.)

Director Milos Forman wanted the mental hospital in this movie to seem real, so he actually used real mental patients as most of the extras. Call it commitment or exploitation—it still makes for a realistic mental ward. (Source.)

When Jack Nicholson agreed to act in this movie, he settled for a percentage of the movie's profits because he thought they wouldn't be able to pay him well for a small indie film. The movie went on to make more than 120 million dollars, so it looks like Nicholson's generosity paid off. (Source.)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Resources

Websites

One Flew Over the Rotten Tomatoes
Check out this site to see why the website has given the movie a "Certified fresh" rating.

Filmsite.org Has the Scoop
For a solid description of the movie and why it's so great, be sure to swing by this site.

One Flew at DailyScript.com
Wanna see the whole screenplay for the movie? Well you're in luck.

Book

The Original Book
Ken Kesey wrote the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and published it thirteen years before the movie came out. And it's definitely different than the film, so give it a read if you get a chance.

Articles

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: 10 Things You Didn't Know About the Film"
The title is pretty self-explanatory. Maybe you already knew some of these things, but be a good sport and just pretend you didn't.

Video

One Flew Original Trailer
If you were a moviegoer back in the mid-seventies, this is the trailer that would have introduced you to the whacky world of R.P. McMurphy.

I Want My Cigarettes
Can't get enough of Charlie Cheswick's epic freak-out? Then why not watch it over and over?

Siskel and Ebert Review One Flew
Here we've got two legendary movie critics giving us their take on One Flew.

Audio

Full Audiobook of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
It ain't the movie, but what better chance will you get to compare the movie to the novel?

One Flew Theme Music
This link will take you straight to a recording of the musical theme that you might recognize from several parts of the movie. And dang if it ain't haunting.

One Flew Audio Tribute
This fan has done a great job of mashing up images from the movie and setting them to the original musical score. If you want a good look at this movie's audio "fingerprint," this link is the place to go.

Images

Something You'll Never See in the Movie
Yup, someone must have taken a pic when Nurse Ratched wasn't looking, because she's actually smiling.

Movie Poster
This is the first thing you see before plunging into the craziness that is this movie.

Mac and Chief Palling it Up
Doesn't it look like they're having fun? You could almost forget that they're in a mental hospital.