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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestReview - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
(Two-Disc Special Edition)
by Milos Forman (Director)
Warner Home Video, 1975
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Aug 20th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 34)

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest won many awards when it was originally released, and watching it again, it stands up as a magnificent film, nearly thirty years after. It is set in the 1963, in a locked psychiatric ward for long term male patients. R. P. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, arrives and soon starts stirring the men up. It's pretty clear that McMurphy is faking mental illness in order to get out of prison. He has a history of crime and he often gets into fights. He is soon winning cigarettes off other patients through card games and betting. He argues with the head nurse, the notorious Nurse Ratched, and inspires the other patients to assert themselves. He breaks out of the hospital with the patients and takes them on a fishing trip. He questions why the other patients are there, and is amazed to find that many of them choose to stay, and could check out whenever they wanted. Ultimately his fight against the system causes so much trouble that he received electric shock treatment, and finally he receives a lobotomy.

The strength of the movie lies in a combination of factors. Most obviously, Jack Nicholson's acting is stunning and he immediately wins over the viewer. His face is so full of expression and intelligence that you can forgive him all of his excesses. But it is also striking how wonderful the acting of the other actors is, especially Louise Fletcher in the difficult role of Nurse Ratched. The story of the film is powerful -- obviously it was based on the novel by Ken Kesey. The adaptation of the book into a film is excellent, and is arguably an improvement.

At the time, the film gained notoriety for its depiction of electroshock treatment as a form of punishment of patients, and it has been often held up as a powerful statement of an antipsychiatric viewpoint. There's no denying that it is highly critical of the power of institutions have to control people. What's especially important in the film is the fact that all the doctors and nurses do genuinely want to help the patients. Even Nurse Ratched seems to genuinely want to act responsibly, and the genius of Fletcher's depiction of her is that she is not an evil person or even nasty to those in her charge. She occasionally has to exert control over the ward and she tries to keep order during the group therapy sessions. Of course, by the end of the film, more than one of the patients has died, and this is the crucial point, that even with the best intentions, the psychiatric system is oppressive and must quash exception individuals who do not willingly acquiesce to the demands of those in authority. That's why the criticism of psychiatry serves so well as criticism for other institutions that describe themselves as helpful and caring and yet in fact control people.

Of course, there are very few psychiatric hospitals left of the kind depicted in Forman's film. It is rare these days for patients to spend long in a psychiatric ward of a hospital, and there are few of the old psychiatric hospitals still open. While in the 1960s few people took medications, now many more people do. The whole method of providing mental health treatment has radically changed in the last forty years. Arguably, the depiction of electroshock therapy was unfair even at the time, and certainly the methods of giving the treatment have improved considerably since then. However, despite all the changes, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest still provides one of the most powerful depictions of psychiatric treatment in popular culture, and what's more, it provides one of the best depictions of mental illness in modern cinema. This DVD release helps to explain how this came about.

The DVD release is a two-disc special edition, featuring commentary on the film by director Milos Forman, and producers Michael Douglas, and Saul Zaentz. They do not seem to have been in the same room when they were speaking -- rather, their comments are edited together. The comments of Douglas and Zaentz do not seem to be made while actually viewing the film, but instead are inserted by the editors to come at appropriate times. So, for example, if they refer to a particular scene, then their comments are placed at that scene. Forman's commentary, in contrast, is clearly made while he was watching his film, and so it is the most illuminating.

Also extremely interesting are some deleted scenes included on the second DVD. For a film released in the 1970s, one does not normally expect that such film is still available, and so it is a special treat to see them. The other main feature on the second DVD is a short documentary on the making of the film, based on interviews with most of the main protagonists, but not, unfortunately, Jack Nicholson. There's some repetition of the information in on the film commentary on the first DVD, but it is interesting to see the speakers rather than just hear them talking over the pictures. Some of the information about the preparation of the film are just amusing -- for instance, that Forman for some time was interested in casting Burt Reynolds in the role of McMurphy and Angela Lansbury in the role of Nurse Ratched.

One of the most revealing facts revealed is that the cast spent weeks in one of the wards of a large psychiatric hospital in Salem, Oregon, where the film was shot. Forman believed that it was essential that the film be as realistic as possible, so the actors spent a great deal of time observing patients and also remaining in character for the whole time that they were in this hospital. Living day and night in the hospital made the actors have a very clear sense of what it was like to live such a life, and this had a dramatic effect on them. Forman's technique with cameras, in group therapy sessions especially, was to use two cameras, one on the speaking character and the other roaming around the others showing their reactions. As Forman explains in his commentary, this camera style meant that the actors were even more realistic in their acting, because they could never go out of character, and this helped them all stay in focus.

Another fact that many viewers of the film might not have previously realized is that all the psychiatrists were played by actual psychiatrists from the Oregon institution were it was filmed, as were some of the nurses and assistants. They are very convincing in their parts and this fact also gives a sense of how much cooperation Forman and the producers received from the psychiatric authorities. In hindsight, this might seem surprising, because the film is perceived as an attack on psychiatry. Indeed, Forman does explain how difficult it was to find a hospital that would agree to let them use their facilities, and how unusual the psychiatrists in the Salem hospital were.

While the film presents an antipsychiatric message that the people in mental hospitals are no crazier than ordinary people and that institutionalize crush individuality and spontaneity, it also presents the converse message. That's to say, ordinary people are just as crazy as people in mental hospitals, and the central moral stance of the film is straightforwardly humanitarian, that we should treat people with respect rather than label them and write them off. It is this aspect of the film that in fact makes it as relevant to society today as it was in the 1970s, and means that it can be counted as one of the few films in which mental illness is portrayed sympathetically and positively.


2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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