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Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
When McMurphy first walks into the mental ward, he's overjoyed to find that he doesn't have to wear his prison cuffs anymore. He meets with the head doctor at the hospital, who wonders if McMurphy has faked insanity to get out of his prison work. But McMurphy thinks he's totally normal and has no idea why he's been put in the mental hospital. For him, he's as sane as can be. Now he just happens to be in a better place than prison…or so he thinks.
McMurphy realizes that the mental ward isn't going to be a walk in the park. He gets frustrated when he realizes that he can't make the other patients pay attention to him or act the way he wants them to. He also realizes that Nurse Ratched is going to be something of a nemesis. After all, McMurphy is no fan of authority, and Nurse Ratched is dead set on never letting anyone challenge her control over the mental ward. You can see a conflict coming.
At first, McMurphy tries to act polite and fly under the radar because he wants to get out of the mental ward as soon as possible. He tries to play by the rules and pretends to do everything Nurse Ratched says, even though he secretly does things his own way whenever he gets a chance. He also has no interest in bonding with the other patients because he doesn't think he's anything like them. After all, they're crazy in his mind and he's totally sane…although he's the only one among them who has five assault charges and a statutory rape on his criminal record.
When McMurphy first meets Chief Bromden, he's told that Chief is a deaf mute. So McMurphy doesn't pay the guy much mind. Little does he know that he has actually met the guy who will one day be his mentor and sorta savior. Chief isn't a deaf mute at all, but someone who's smart enough to fake deafness in order to sneak around the hospital doing whatever he wants. When it comes to playing the system, Chief is one step ahead of McMurphy. The secret isn't to defy the system openly, but to do it in secret.
McMurphy makes a commitment to being a rebel and a troublemaker when he steals a school bus and takes the other patients from his ward on a joyride. On top of that, he steals a boat and takes the men on a fishing trip. Now there's no going back. Nurse Ratched has him in her sights and McMurphy has committed to leading the rebellion of the other patients against her.
Things get wild when Charlie Cheswick follows McMurphy's lead and speaks out against Nurse Ratched. The orderlies try to take him away, but McMurphy and Chief come to his aid. All three of them eventually get taken down to another ward and given electroshock therapy. Before that happens though, Chief Bromden reveals to McMurphy that he (Chief) can hear and speak just fine. He's just found a smarter way of rebelling than McMurphy. McMurphy asks Chief to escape from the hospital with him, but Chief admits that he's too scared to leave.
McMurphy decides to get out of the hospital for good when he realizes that the mental hospital can keep him around for as long as it wishes. He invites his female friend Candy to come break him out. Before leaving though, he has a drunken party with the other patients and ends up falling asleep before he can escape.
McMurphy wakes up to find Nurse Ratched and the orderlies staring down at him. The mental ward is a complete mess after the party of the night before. Nurse Ratched also finds Billy Bibbit in bed with Candy and threatens to tell his mother about what happened. Billy is so upset and ashamed that he kills himself.
After finding Billy dead, Nurse Ratched tells the other patients to go back to their daily routines. But McMurphy blames her for provoking Billy to suicide. McMurphy "seizes the sword" or takes power by seizing Ratched around the neck and trying to kill her. He nearly succeeds too, but Mr. Washington (an orderly) knocks him off at the last possible second, saving Ratched.
McMurphy's road back to the mental ward after attacking Nurse Ratched isn't a positive one. The hospital has given him a frontal lobotomy, cutting out part of his brain and completely robbing him of the ability to rebel. He walks around like a drooling zombie, and if you consider him the hero of this story, then this is definitely a story where the hero doesn't win.
When Chief Bromden sees what has happened to McMurphy, he smothers McMurphy with a pillow. You can think of this moment as a symbolic resurrection because McMurphy has lived freely his entire life. Chief can't stand the idea of McMurphy continuing on in a state of living death by being a zombie, so he set McMurphy free or "resurrects" him by killing him. This is the only way to prevent McMurphy from being just a quiet little drone like the hospital wants him to be.
McMurphy might be dead, but he has already given Chief Bromden the courage to escape and to run for freedom. In a symbolic moment, Bromden tears out the same water fountain that McMurphy failed to lift earlier in the movie. Bromden chucks the fountain through a window and escapes. In the midst of all the sadness we might feel at the end of this movie, there is definitely some solace to be found in Chief's transformation. He's able to do the things that McMurphy never could, and he shows us that in some small way, it's always possible to fight for your freedom.
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