One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Although One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is filled with humor and holds high entertainment value for audiences everywhere, it is much more than just a film about a rowdy patient at a mental hospital. Based on the world-famous novel by Ken Kesey, the story explores deeply rooted themes of corrupt power, American bureaucracy, and the silencing of individualism induced by structure.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 2.22.18 PM

In the time before R.P. McMurphy is introduced, the mental ward is a representation of perfect order held under control by the firm grasp of Nurse Ratched. Everything is structured and scheduled, leaving the patients with little to no influence over their daily routine. Nurse Ratched is a manipulative, all-powerful dictator and it quickly becomes clear that she’s managed to dominate and almost entirely absolve each patient’s personal will and mental strength. The lighting throughout the entire film is dull, dreary and artificial, conveying feelings of lost hope and lifelessness—exactly what Nurse Ratched needs to make sure the men of the ward remain submissive and weak. The ward is her kingdom, and everything is at peace as long as she maintains this power.

But then… (Cue the intro to Beethoven’s 5th)… McMurphy is admitted to the hospital. one_flew_over_the_cuckoos_nest2

From the first moments we see this new character onscreen, it’s obvious that he’s the protagonist.  And what’s more, the composition of the scene above implies that he’s a force to be reckoned with. McMurphy is placed right in the middle of the shot, drawing as much attention as possible, and even though he’s technically being led into the facility under the control of two guards, he walks freely and remains a few steps ahead of them. Even his clothing starkly contrasts with the uniformity and blandness of the rest of the ward. This shot immediately establishes McMurphy as a symbol of individualism, power, freedom, and dominance that we know isn’t going to be warmly welcomed by the ever-rigid Nurse Ratched.

And so the battle begins. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched become opposing forces, entirely polar yet evenly matched sources of power that each fight to dominate the other.

A few scenes later, when McMurphy attends his first daily meeting on the ward, the parallel composition of the shots featuring him and Nurse Ratched further emphasize their struggle for power.

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 4.50.57 PMUnlike the rest of the men sitting in the circle, McMurphy is placed directly across from Nurse Ratched. As the characters engage in conversation, the camera switches between the two nearly identical shots above. Both characters are perfectly centered, facing each other as though they’re about to begin a duel. This reiterates the idea that the two are evenly matched, as though McMurphy is a visiting opponent presenting a huge challenge to Nurse Ratched’s kingdom.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the shot composition used when Billy Bibbit attempts to speak with Nurse Ratched.Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 2.05.46 PM

The silhouette of Nurse Ratched’s head in the shot casts a powerful feeling of dominance over Billy’s cowering, nervous figure. He’s shown in a near-crouching position, with his shoulders slumped and his hands anxiously fidgeting. Compared to the straight-on shot of McMurphy, this shot makes it very clear that Billy is entirely submissive to the terrifying authority of Nurse Ratched.

The everlasting struggle of individuals vs. society remains prevalent throughout the movie, made obvious by the conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. Each move McMurphy makes to cause chaos and challenge authority is an attack on societal structure and American bureaucracy, and each of Nurse Ratched’s rebuttals is an attempt to silence the power of the individual and force conformity. These ideas allow the movie to combine entertainment value with worldly significance and literary impact, resulting in masterpiece.




Works Cited

“Expressive Film Techniques in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Yahoo, 20 Apr. 2007. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Dir. Milos Forman. 1975. DVD.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” VideoBash, n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.

Prince, Stephen R. Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film. 6th Edition ed. N.p.: Pearson Education, 2013. Print.

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