This year is the 45th anniversary of the release of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Writer and broadcaster Ann Marie Hourihan tells us why the film is still relevant today. The film screens in Donegal, Leitrim and Kildare as part of First Fortnight Festival, which makes the beginning of each year synonymous with mental health awareness, challenging prejudice and ending stigma.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest still feels fresh. The film was released in 1975, it was based on the novel written by Ken Kesey, published in 1962. But its theme is eternal. One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest is about control, that is social control. And it is also about the insanity of sanity.
When it first appeared the book – which also became a successful Broadway play- was recognised as a portrait of the individual against the system, of the fight between the old culture of conformity against the new alternative counter culture of which Ken Kesey was a enthusiastic member. He had also worked nights at the Palo Alto Veterans’ Hospital.
The film is about mental illness as a form of protest against the madness of the world, and as a shelter from the world, and also as a punishment meted out by the world. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is set in a mental hospital that functions because both sides – the staff and the patients – agree on this view and conform to it: “Medication time!”
Into this calm and desolate system comes R.P McMurphy who wants to be incarcerated in a mental hospital rather than face time in jail. He has been convicted of statutory rape for having sex with a fifteen year old girl. McMurphy is unrepentant : “She was fifteen going on thirty five and she was very willing… no man could resist that.”
In fact throughout the film sex (for men) is regarded as the cure for most things. Several of the patients have been incarcerated precisely because the outside world does not allow them to have sex. Both Billy’s mother and Mr Hardy’s wife have forbidden their men sex and therefore, by implication, consigned them to the madhouse . On their hospital ward they are dominated and patronised by Nurse Ratched, whom McMurphy quickly identifies as the enemy.
There are no female patients in this hospital and there is only one non-white male on McMurphy’s ward : Chief, a Native American, played by Will Sampson. The male orderlies are all African-Americans. So McMurphy has a group of white men to play with, and to bring pleasure to. He cleans up at their card games, takes them fishing, tries to sharpen up their basket ball, and petitions for them to watch the World Series: “Come on, be good Americans”.
One of the greatest scenes in the film is when, although Nurse Ratched has forbidden patients to watch the World Series, R.P. McMurphy sits them down in front of a blank television screen and has them cheering at an imaginary baseball game whilst he provides a running commentary.
Most of the time though his fellow inmates are shy, obedient and terribly afraid. They don’t want any trouble and, as McMurphy discovers to his horror, the majority of them are voluntary inmates, free to leave whenever they want but reluctant to even try for liberty.
The film is brought to greatness by the actors portraying these patients. The stuttering Billy ( Brad Dourif), Danny DeVito as Martini, who eats the Monopoly pieces, and Cheswick, played by Sydney Lassick. Cheswick is full of despair as he protests at Nurse Ratched’s withholding of his cigarettes by sobbing “ I ain’t no little kid.”
The punishment for Cheswick’s outburst is swift and terrible, and we see clearly what McMurphy is only beginning to understand: that the relative calm of Nurse Ratched’s ward is based on a ruthless penal system just as bad as any prison’s.
In the book the story of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is narrated by the Chief – its title comes from a nursery rhyme from his childhood. At the end of the film McMurphy’s anarchy gives the Chief courage to start living again, although the system at the hospital remains unchanged.
The director of the film, Milos Foreman, had escaped to America from the Soviet totalitarianism in his native Czechoslavakia. He was determined that the film, before anything else, had to feel real. He and many of the film’s actors stayed at the Oregon State Mental Hospital where it was filmed. In fact Dr Spivey, who interviews McMurphy on his arrival, was played by Dr Dean Brooks, who was the director of the hospital. Other parts in the film were taken by real patients and staff. Even at the time of filming the mental health system’s attitude to incarceration was changing: the population of Oregon State Mental Hospital had been fallen to just 600 patients. Some of the film’s attitudes would not be tolerated now. But some things do not change and anyone with experience of the modern mental health system will identify with it. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest still feels all too real.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest screens
04 January @ 20:00 Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair, Donegal
14 January @ 20:00 The Dock, Leitrim
16 January @ 20:00 The Riverbank , Kildare
First Fortnight utilises arts and culture to challenge mental health stigma while supporting some of Ireland’s most vulnerable people through creative therapies.
In Ireland, one in four people are predicted to struggle with their mental health at some point in their lives.