Movies That Everyone Should See: “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

In the late 1950s, author Ken Kesey was in his mid-twenties and working as a night aide in a Veteran’s Hospital in Menlo Park, California. As opposed to being detached from the patients, Kesey spoke with them frequently, and became sympathetic to their plight. He watched how they were being treated, and how the system set up to handle their care operated.

He was also something of a patient himself there, participating in government funded experiments on the effects of psychedelic drugs on the human mind, including psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, AMT, DMT and LSD.

The combination of these experiences would inspire him to write the 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

Time Magazine would eventually name it one of the 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923-2005 (since the magazine began publication). Kesey himself would go on to additional fame as one of the figureheads of the late 1960s counter-culture movement, leading the “Merry Pranksters” around the country on a bus tour, and hosting “acid tests” in San Francisco.

The movie rights to the novel were optioned by legendary film star Kirk Douglas, who initially intended to star in the film version himself. He actually created and starred in a short-lived Broadway production of it shortly after purchasing the rights in the 1960s. However, he was unable to get the film made… every major studio had declined to make the film with him attached as star. Eventually he grew too old for the role, and finally gave the project to his son Michael to produce. To give you some context, Michael Douglas was starring in “The Streets of San Francisco” at the time.

Kirk Douglas had met director Miloš Forman in Europe ten years earlier. Foreman’s parents had been killed in Nazi concentration camps, leaving him orphaned at a young age – and giving Forman a painful and personal insight into institutionalized evil. He would later study film at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Douglas was so impressed with Forman and his work, he discussed having him direct the project. Upon returning to the States, he sent Forman a copy of “Cuckoo’s Nest” to evaluate. The book, however, was intercepted by customs without either of them knowing. For nearly a decade, each thought the other had blown the possible project off. Thankfully, neither held it against the other when Michael eventually got involved and once again approached Foreman.

When production began, the lead role in the film was offered to Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and James Caan. Miloš Foreman wanted Burt Reynolds.

Thankfully, none of them worked out.

Jack Nicholson began his acting career in the late 1950s, in his early twenties, and struggled throughout the 1960s to “break out”. He appeared in four Roger Corman films. He had two appearances on “The Andy Griffith Show”. He made westerns that couldn’t find US distribution. His first ten years of acting were full of bit parts, small films and misfires.

But in 1967, Nicholson wrote the screenplay for a movie about an acid trip.

“The Trip” was directed by Corman, and starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Nicholson had written a role in the movie for himself, but as a testament to his low profile at the time, Corman didn’t give him the part. He did, however, get to work with Fonda and Hopper, as the three all dropped acid together in order to help the other two “prepare for their roles”. Early the next year, Fonda and Hopper were in pre-production on “Easy Rider” (which they co-wrote with Terry Southern, and Hopper directed), when actor Rip Torn and Hopper almost got into a fistfight. Apparently Torn, a Texan, took offence to Hopper referring to southerners as “Rednecks”, and the two nearly threw down. The decision was made to replace Torn… with Nicholson.

The role (as an ACLU lawyer with a penchant for partying) was the big break that Jack had been waiting for. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the part. In fact, the role kicked off a string of Oscar noms for Nicholson that bordered on being an annual event. Following his nod in 1970 for “Easy Rider”, Nicholson would be nominated in 1971 for “Five Easy Pieces”, 1974 for “The Last Detail”, and 1975 for “Chinatown”. All for leading roles.

But it wouldnt be until he played Randle Patrick McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest” that he would take home a statue.

McMurphy was the perfect role for Nicholson.

Sent to jail for statutory rape, McMurphy was transferred to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation after getting into a string of fights and various other misbehavior. It’s suggested that he may have been feigning being crazy in order to get out of work detail.

From his very first moments in the ward, he’s disrupting things, whooping and hollering, and then breaking up a card game by distracting one of the players. Unaware that unlike jail, he’ll be kept in the asylum until the staff deems him sane and agrees to release him, McMurphy begins challenging the rules and regulations, causing chaos and intentionally getting under the skin of the head nurse, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).

Ratched believes in strict order and adherence to the rules in order to maintain control in the ward. When McMurphy asks to watch the World Series, Nurse Ratched objects to the change in the scheduling. Ratched offers to put it to a vote, then grins smugly as the patients reject his call to challenge her authority. When it’s put to a vote again the next day, Ratched rejects the unanimous vote of the group therapy circle, claiming that they need to obtain a majority amongst all the patients on the floor… which includes several catatonics. In spite of which, McMurphy gains the requisite number of votes… only to have Ratched unilaterally end the therapy session and claim he didn’t obtain the votes in time.

In an act of spirit and defiance, McMurphy pretends to watch the game anyways, working the other patients up with an improvised, enthusiastic, imaginary play by-play.

McMurphy’s rebelliousness certainly doesn’t end there. One afternoon, he leaps the fence and commandeers a bus, spontaneously taking the patients out on a charter fishing trip. It’s a chaotic afternoon at sea. And though McMurphy and his band of crazies drive their boat in circles, they do wind up catching fish.

It’s obvious that McMurphy is becoming a leader for the other patients, and that his disregard for the rules has undermined Ratched’s ability to keep order. Slowly, the others begin challenging Ratched’s authority as well. Most of them are voluntarily committed, and they begin to question why Ratched has certain rules in place.

Eventually, McMurphy’s influence causes a full-out riot in the ward, and he himself breaks through the glass window of Ratched’s nurses station. A fight breaks out, and McMurphy is subdued by the guards. The incident results in electroshock therapy being imposed on three of the participants, McMurphy included.

The film is an obvious metaphor for the struggle of individualism versus society’s institutions. McMurphy’s challenges to Ratched’s authority represent the struggle of the individual against the system. Truly free will versus societal order.

Nurse Ratched hands out pills and leads calisthenics and holds group therapy sessions, playing classical music to maintain an aura of calm. She keeps the patients in line through a strict regiment of routine and medication. She dispassionately advocates the rules and regulations of the ward, ruling from behind the glass walls of her nurse’s station. Ratched is shown to be less interested in therapeutically advancing her patient’s care than she is in maintaining her control. She even rejects an opportunity to get McMurphy out of her hair by transferring him back to prison. She instead elects to keep him under her thumb. In fact, at one critical juncture, she shames a patient in order to re-establish her authority, damaging his psyche at a vulnerable moment, leading to tragic consequences.

McMurphy, on the other hand, stirs imaginations and helps the patients have new experiences. His rebellious spirit is infectious. Though the fishing expedition he briefly leads is an anarchistic riot, the patients experience more life than they ever have before. “Chief”, who never spoke or communicated prior to McMurphy’s arrival, smiles and plays basketball, eventually opens up to him, as well. Whenever McMurphy takes control, the world becomes chaotic, manic and unpredictable, but undeniably more fun.

The underlying message is that the powers that be are content to ignore the well-being and happiness of the individual, as long as order is maintained at all cost. Rules and regulations and routines are imposed, and the ways that they constrain the individual are often quietly unnoticed. “The system”, represented here by Ratched and the rest of the staff, fosters repression and constraint and failing that, resorts to outright oppression.

McMurphy’s subversive exuberance and blatant disregard for authority could never peacefully exist within “the system”. In the context of a structured environment, his brand of cavalier carpe diem could only end in tragedy, and indeed, for McMurphy, things do not end well. Of course, his example borders on a sacrifice, serving as an inspiration and example for others. While the full ramifications McMurphy’s philosophy of hedonistic anarchism are… less than fully explored to say the least, on a symbolic level, the character stands for the individual’s desire to explore life fully and embrace it. To focus on playing, without getting caught up in rules. The personification of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

While McMurphy’s ultimate fate might be interpreted by some as representing the futility of bucking the system, he never acquiesced to authority. He fought as hard as he possibly could against the injustices he perceived.

In the end, his defiant spirit literally winds up becoming a liberating example for others.


“Cuckoo’s Nest” was nominated for NINE Academy Awards in 1976, winning five: Best Picture, Best Director for Miloš Forman, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor and Best Actress for Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, respectively. The four it did not win were Best Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif), Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Score. It was only the second film in history to win all five “Major” Oscars (the first being “It Happened One Night”).

The film has forged a legacy that’s lasted far beyond its year of release, as well.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was chosen as #20 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies and held strong at #33 on the Tenth Anniversary Edition. It’s #17 on their 100 Years… 100 Cheers, their list of the 100 most inspiring American films of the past 100 years, and Nurse Ratchet ranks in at a lofty #5 on the villain side of their 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains.

It’s currently #12 on the IMDb Top 250.

In 1993, the movie was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Bitter over certain changes from the novel, author Ken Kesey claimed never to have watched the film. He passed away in 2001.

For us, however, it’s a film that showcases the indominable power of the spirit.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See


42 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”

  1. Hi, Fogs and company:

    Excellent review and background on a film that kind of creeps up on you a bit at a time while its cast dazzles!

    You are so right that the film would not have worked with Douglas, Brando or Hackman as McMurphy. Though, James Caan might have added an intriguing twist.

    Nicholson, as witnessed many times before and after, makes R.P. his own. As he had with Chief Baddusky, George Hanson, Robert Dupea, Jake Gittes; and later, Colonel Nathan Jessup.

    The story is very much in and of its time and required fresh, more unknown talent across the board. One of the joys of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ is picking out the young (DeVito, Lloyd, Schiavelli) talent in the background and watch them shine.

    Well done, my friend!

    • Thank you sir, thank you. 😀

      Can’t forget Jack Torrance in that Nicholson rogues gallery!!

      Anyways, yes. I regret not really being able to work in some comments on the cast. Brad Dourif, too, the future Grima Wormtongue!

      It definitely ratchets up the tension along the way… Glad you liked the post, Jack 😀

  2. As much as I adore The Shining, I think this is the best role I’ve seen him in. He’s just so much more varied than as Torrence. Not seen this in quite a while but feel compelled to dust it off and fire it up. Great piece man.

  3. One of my favorites movies of all-time and I actually just watched it recently, and you know what? Still held-up to this day! I love pretty much everything about it and one flick that deserved to win as many awards as it did, if not deserved more. Nice post bud.

    • Thanks Dan. Thank you. 😉

      Totally still holds up. I don’t think there’s anything about it that will age! We’re always going to have mental wards, and there’s always going to be institutional oppression, you know?

      This one exemplifies the word “Timeless”. 😀

  4. I sure do enjoy when you look in depth at legendary film and your coverage here shines brightly indeed! I always thought that OFOTCN is a film revelation! It embraces the human spirit and portrays it in such a rarefied and indelible way that it never has lost any of its impact for me the dozens of times I have seen it!

    It deserved all the accolades it got and more. Brad Dourif to me is ranked in the top ten all time tragic characters and elicited in me the most powerful rage at ratchet that film, has ever generated that emotion in me personally!

    One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest is at the pinnacle of all time greats!

    • Awesome man, I’m happy everyone was so pleased with how this came out. It’s definitely one of the “Majors”, you know? 😀

      I was sad I didnt get a chance to address the other patients more. This time out I was actually pretty impressed with Sydney Lassick’s Charlie Cheswick. The guy did a great job.

      It just didnt flow in that direction, you know? 😦

      Anyways, total agreement. One of the best films ever. Have to love it. Glad you’re on board with that! 😀

  5. Nice write up for a great film, and definitely a true MTESS. My only issue with Cuckoo’s Nest is that it is so clearly a great, significant, and worthy film that it’s become one of those ‘Film appreciation class” type of films, which can ruin the film for a student who can wind up viewing it as “Homework”. That was my first experience with Cuckoo’s Nest, and it wasn’t for years and years after that class that I was able to enjoy this film. Saw it again about 10 years later and realized how truly great is was when I didn’t have to parse every scene for hidden meaning and contemplate who was an allegory for what and the psycho-distopian gobbledy gook that impressed the hell out of my Prof.

    Anyway. Whatev. It’s a good flippin’ movie.

    • A bad teacher — and I think any teacher who expects you to delve for hidden meanings is more likely to be bad than not — can ruin any book or movie. I was fortunate in that my AP Lit teacher for once had the sense to just let us figure it out on our own.

    • LOL. Sorry your teacher sucked, bro.

      I cant imagine messing up Cuckoo’s Nest… seems like a teacher’s wet dream. Easy to analyze, plus an awesome flick. How can you go wrong?

      I guess, not having to attend school anymore :D, I forget how many teachers actually suck. LOL

  6. I went to Springfield High School, in Springfield, Oregon; Ken Kesey’s alma mater. Naturally we had to read the book in AP Lit my senior year, and watched the movie. We also had a visit to campus from Kesey himself. I recommend the first two… the third, well, Kesey gave a pretty good demonstration of what three decades of doing dope will do to your brain. Of course, he still recommended the use of marijuana to the student body. I don’t think the administration invited him back after that…

    Growing up in an area where Kesey was a local of some renown (Eugene even has a statue of him in the downtown mall), it wouldn’t be hard to get sick of him. Fortunately, even though my exposure to “Cuckoo’s Nest” was school-mandated, I was still young enough, even as a high school senior, that I hadn’t heard a great deal about him at the time. (Plus, I think Springfield itself is less prone to going ga-ga over people even if they are successful alumni.)

    Both the book and the movie are very good. There are some differences, but I don’t think most of it would warrant Kesey being upset over the film. But who knows, I can’t stand in his shoes, since my brain chemistry hasn’t been altered. 🙂 I will say one thing I thought was a nice touch in the book that didn’t quite translate to the movie as well was how the other patients reacted to Bromden breaking his silence after McMurphy’s lobotomy. In the book, he just starts opening up completely and telling everybody about it, and they all just react naturally as if they knew all along he could talk. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, and I think it’s played similarly there, but it doesn’t quite have that same feel of natural expectation. But then, that may just be a natural consequence of the transition, since the movie can’t be narrated by Bromden the way the novel is.

    • Oh my god, what an awesome story though! 😀 LOL! It’s kind of like me attending the Charlie Sheen “Violent Torpedo” tour. Heh. Charlie was a freaking mess, and it sucked so bad that the crowd was constantly on the verge of booing… but it makes great story fodder! 😀

      I read the book, too (dont anyone have a heart attack) At the end of the movie, Bromden escapes, but no one but McMurphy knows he could talk. I think its better that way… smoother. Great character though. That’s one of the things Kesey was pissed at, that he wasn’t going to be the narrator. I think the movie made some wise choices, obviously, seeing as it turned out to be BRILLIANT!

      Glad your local connection didnt burn you out on this great property.

      • Oh yeah, we had fun with that visit in the weeks after. What really surprised me was that most of the students actually were having fun mocking the idea of using drugs after seeing Kesey’s incoherent ramble. It wasn’t the usual “Wow, man, drugs, cool!” stuff you’d expect from a bunch of high schoolers. Maybe it was just that all those students had already dropped out (class of 97 graduation rate: 25% if compared to our freshman year. :D)

        And yeah, I think the movie mostly made good changes. That’s the thing that always has to be remembered when adapting a book the big screen; changes are almost inevitable, because some things just don’t translate well, and because the book is usually bigger than the film (The Hobbit notwithstanding). Just got to take them as, mostly, their own entity. So long as they don’t make changes that are both pointless and stupid.

      • Right.

        As to Kesey, it doesn’t surprise me at the least to hear he was a rambling mess. Can totally believe it, having dabbled myself – obviously nowhere near the disciple he was though. LOL

        Thats one thing that I was thinking about this movie was… and dont get me wrong, its great… but everytime McMurphy gets handed the reins, things wind up a mess. LOL. So if we completely ascribed to his worldview… where would that leave us? 😀 Not the I support Ratched, obviously, she’s a witch.

    • Won’t argue, I know a lot of great movies are based off of books, but you do use the double great (great book, great movie), so I can see your point.

      Meanwhile, definitely. Jack is awesome here. One of his signature roles, without a doubt. 🙂

  7. Great review, Fogs. I want to watch this one again. Not that I didn’t like it the first time, but I didn’t enjoy it as much beacuse Nurse Ratched didn’t live up to my expectations. I know all that she represents and she’s this huge bitch and all, but I expected someone more blatantly evil, you know?

    • I think thats the greatest evil about her though… she IS evil… but she’s so subtle and acceptable to society. She’s insidious. Makes her a little more frightening than someone who’s over the top, I think. 😀

  8. Saw this again just two weeks ago on TCM, Nicholson of course was great but the supporting cast is one in a million. My daughter didn’t recognize Devito or Christopher Llyod. Schavelli she saw and knew, but Billy Babbit to her is always Piter DeVries before Grima Wormtongue. The day this won the Academy Award, I’d been to the movies in Hollywood and saw a comedy western, Dutchess and the Dirtwater Fox. I remember because I got home just in time for the start of the awards and thought to myself, “What an idiot, you might have missed some of this for that dumb movie.” This was one of the years where a tie would have been a good outcome in the actor category, Pacino was equally brilliant in Dog Day. I hate that his Oscar is for Scent of a Woman and not Dog Day Afternoon. It was however needed for Jack to win since he was stacking up nominations without wins for five years before this.

    • Thats exactly what I had been thinking. Nicholson was due, and this performance was worthy. Absolutely. I do think Pacino was a little better, but hey, that’s the game… there can be only one, thats why its so special.

      They did have a pretty loaded cast. Sydney Lassick was awesome too.

      DeVito actually has my favorite line of the movie. After Nurse Ratched chides them about losing all their cigarettes to McMurphy, and explains thats why she’s rationing their cigarettes, Martini asks “How we gonna win our money back?” It’s such a degenerate gambler thing to say. LOL. Cracked Nicholson up so realistically that I’ve always wondered if it was ad libbed. 😀

  9. Fantasic addition the series Fogs. I only have one question… What took you so long? 😉
    I’m a big, big fan of this and out of my personal top four movies, you have included three of them in your feature. – The Big Lebowski, Blade Runner and this. You’re on a role bro and if you keep this good form up then my personal top ten could make it in here at some point. LOL. 😀

    • LOL.

      I intentionally space the “Biggest” ones. a) I want to leave myself some motivation for the series going forward b) I dont want to burn through them all and leave nothing but marginal choices going forward. So I try to change it up, find some interesting calls here and there, you know how it is. There’s a ton of great movies I havent gotten around to yet, including at least half – maybe more of MY personal top ten. LOL.

      So stay tuned, I guess. 😀

  10. YES.

    You nailed this one, Fogster. 😀

    This is one of my favorite movies, pretty much a perfect film with one of the all-time great villains in Nurse Ratched. Had no idea this is ranked so highly on IMDB — that’s awesome!

    Great writeup and inclusion to an excellent series, man.

    • Yup. Number 12. Isnt that cool? I love when the “Classics” are also still highly regarded by the fans. This one is a winner across the board.

      Glad the post met with your approval if the flick is one of your faves 😀 Thats a true test right there.

      Thanks for the kind words man, I definitely do appreciate it!! 😀

    • Yeah, such a tough call between those two. I suppose its a good thing when you get two authentically great films in one year, but it definitely means someone is getting screwed out of an oscar. LOL 😦

      I’d hate to have to choose between them, you know?

    • Thanks Andy, appreciate that.

      I actually think I DID do it in that order. Havent read the book since I was young, but I’m sure that it was the movie that inspired me to check it out! 😀

      Glad you liked the post, man.

  11. Pingback: Quick Review | ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ Ken Kesey « Wordly Obsessions

  12. My favourite movie(remember writing my thoughts on this movie ages ago,now its probably in some debris), Jack Nicholson is one crazy good actor. Crazy.Great post,you articulated it so much better!

    • Thanks “Yeah” 😀 I’m a big fan of this one too. Nicholson wasincredible here, there’s no doubt. He certainly deserved the Oscar, even though he was up against Pacino in “Dog Day”, which I love too.

      Glad you enjoyed the read, have a look around… maybe there’s some other movies you love too!

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