This Bird Has Flown: The Reclamation of the Human Spirit Through the Power of Free Will

Paper by William Clark.

John Locke, in his seminal work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding stated that “where there is no thought, no volition, no will” there can be no liberty. The patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975) are indeed examples of men without thought, volition, or will. Hence, they are without liberty, and this is a theme which we will explore throughout this paper. The scene chosen will be the morning after the party in the ward, near the end of the film. It will begin with Nurse Ratched’s arrival in the ward and end with her recovering from McMurphy’s attempted strangling. The scene shows Nurse Ratched’s attempts at clinging to power in the asylum, a power that is removed, regained, then finally taken away forever by Chief Bromden’s escape. The power struggle will result in the death of two men, Billy Bibbit and McMurphy, but the ultimate liberation of another. This paper will be an in-depth analysis of the critical, penultimate scene from the film as well as how it brings to resolution and closure the character studies portrayed in the film. It will also touch upon on the scene’s insular style and how this style relates to the rest of the film as a whole.

This film’s structure follows the classic Hollywood narrative form, or cinematic language, with all conflicts resolved by film’s end. It includes three acts containing the setup, the development, the resolution, and finally, closure. It will generally make use of restricted narration, with occasional lapses into a more omniscient perspective, such as when the hospital’s doctors and Nurse Ratched are discussing McMurphy in a private meeting. While not all of the protagonists live happily ever after, the film definitely ends on an upbeat, in fact, one of the greatest ever. The film’s content is that of a power struggle, or metaphorical conflict, between good and evil.

The after-party scene is the culmination of the power struggle between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, one in which the true nature of both characters is definitively revealed and forever confirmed. Nurse Ratched, who has been locked into a battle of wills with McMurphy since the beginning of the movie finally reveals her true nature, that of deadly evil. McMurphy, who has had numerous chances for escape throughout the film, also shows his true nature, that of righteous goodness. He does this by staying behind out of concern for Billy Bibbit instead of escaping through the open window with Chief Bromden. This scene also shows the limits as well as the negative effects of institutional power, a recurring theme throughout this film. This scene also shapes the narrative of the film by setting up the final scene and bringing the story to its conclusion, one of several possible conclusions. Assuming there was no book plot to follow, this film could have ended after the choking scene, or maybe even after Chief Bromden smothers McMurphy. But Hollywood hates unhappy endings. One might think that the obligatory happy ending is a bit of a Hollywood artifice, but here it is today, alive and well.

It was paramount that the film provide some sort of cathartic moment, some emotional release, for all the negative emotions that the film instilled in its viewers. The smothering of the brain- dead McMurphy required a moral and emotional balance, a redemption of the spirit for the audience. The Chief’s escape provided this balance and also its requisite, happy ending. The after-party scene sets all this up for us. It traps McMurphy as a patient, a Chronic, forever to remain at the hospital, which thanks to the Chief, will not be a very long stay. It restores Nurse Ratched to her former power, albeit with her power slightly damaged or weakened. Finally, it sets up the Chief’s escape.

In regard to setting, the after-party scene continues the complex synthesis already established early on in the film. Almost all shots contain walls, locked windows, or bars separating one area from another. The hospital décor, which is drab, sterile, clinical, and represents the emasculating system as a whole, is first enlivened by the party, then partially demolished in random acts of rebellion by the men. Ironically, the hospital ward, after being symbolically killed by the patients, is never more alive than when litter-strewn and covered in the detritus of last evening’s festivities. Only in brief moments such as the fishing expedition do we see a verdant life outside the hospital. For most of the film the patients are stuck inside, dressed in hospital pajamas, listening to soothing classical music, being hand-fed pills to keep them calm, having their cigarettes rationed, and in effect, being treated entirely as small children. By keeping the men forever inside, in cramped rooms filled with other trapped men, the anxiety level is kept artificially high, often resulting in their acting out, such as during the meeting where Harding is discussing his sexual orientation. Bancini gets up from his chair, declaring “I’m tired and it’s all a bunch of baloney!” He will need to be physically restrained by the orderlies, who use no small amount of physical force.

As our textbook states, this film is an attempt to discover what “lies beneath the surface of human life.” As the other patients make up the large group of “minor” characters (e.g., Cheswick, Martini, Billy Bibbit, et. al.) that are almost exclusively seen as a group, a group that should be taken altogether as a single “major” character, as they tend to act in unison. Because they almost always move together as a group, this blocking reinforces the illusion of movement, but they form a symbiotic relationship, with the parts being greater than the whole. An example is when Nurse Ratched arrives, they are shuffled off as a group. When it is discovered that Billy Bibbit has committed suicide, they return en masse to see what has happened. Our analyzed scene is the culmination of the conflict between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, but it also serves to illuminate, at least partially, what “lies beneath the surface” of the group, a group forever mired in the trappings of conformity, a concept Richard Barsam discusses in Looking at Movies.

This film creates multiple overlapping webs of expectations. These could be referred to as Chekhovian inferences, such as in Anton Chekhov’s famous hypothetical “gun from scene one.” There are at least three possible futures (or endings) hinted at throughout the film. The first one is alluded to when McMurphy is speaking with the hospital’s doctors at the 51:00 minute mark and states that Nurse Ratched makes him want to kill. The second is when he is given shock treatment therapy, but he recovers. The third is when he escapes, but then returns to lead a fishing expedition. All three of these moments hint at how the movie could end. He could kill Nurse Ratched, which he almost does. He could escape the asylum, which he almost does, as well. The third future that is hinted at is his (basically) life-ending frontal lobotomy. The film’s narrative form and cinematic style leave the viewer hanging on until the very last moments of the film, which could very easily have gone any of the three which ways. Screenplays do not always follow the letter of the book, so even if you’ve read the Ken Kesey book and think you know how everything will turn out, you could still be in for a surprise plot twist. As it turns out, all three possible futures are present at the end. McMurphy does attempt to kill Nurse Ratched, he receives a frontal lobotomy as his punishment, and even though McMurphy does not escape, the Chief does.

If we attempt to deconstruct the formal arrangement of events that make up the story, we can see a linear progression. In particular, we should consider time, space, causality, and conflict. In a sense, this film flips the typical Hollywood timeline on its end. In other words, there is no hard deadline by which all conflict must be resolved. McMurphy has an open-ended and arbitrary “prison” sentence totally at the will and whim of Nurse Ratched. His release date is entirely at her discretion. The spatial confines used in this film are important to the narrative, as well. The film begins and ends with exterior shots of a mountain forest, with the only other outdoor scene of any import being the fishing expedition. After the party, there is also a brief shot of Rose and Candy standing outside surrounded by trees and shrubs, providing McMurphy a clear visual of the life waiting for him if he would just climb through that window.

The fact that McMurphy takes the men fishing on an open sea is significant as there are few images more symbolic of freedom than the ocean. He could have taken them to a museum, or a saloon, or even fishing out on a lake. The fact that he took them out on an ocean vessel was not mere chance or inconsequential. Causality, or cause-and-effect, will be seen as the downward spiral, or series of steps, that Nurse Ratched undergoes as she loses power, a power that she temporarily reclaims with McMurphy’s lobotomy, but finally and ultimately loses forever as Chief Bromden makes his final escape. This is where the movie ends, but from this point on in
the story of the hospital, she is beaten. The conflict and tension between McMurphy and Ratched is what sustains the film and provides the buildup towards the final scenes, with the film being largely devoid of a fulfilled pattern. The question the viewer might ask early on is whether Nurse Ratched is a some sort of metaphorical vampire, or just “something of a cunt.” Eventually, this conflict is resolved, the question answered. The after-party scene shows the end of McMurphy’s journey and progression as a character. When given the choice, his concern for his friend’s welfare outweighs his concern for his own freedom. The final shot of the Chief running to freedom brings the film’s style full circle. We start the film with a shot of the forest, and to the forest we return.

Robert Sklar, in his book Film: An International History of the Medium states that Hollywood experienced a second “Golden Age” in the 1970s, much greater than what it saw in the 1930s and 1940s. Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman all made their mark during these exciting years. Milos Forman, while maybe not as prolific or well-known as Scorsese or Coppola, still deserves copious amounts of credit for his contribution to the industry. His insular style of directing, very apparent in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, helped shape and define the Hollywood landscape for years to come. The use of an ensemble cast, trapped within the confines of a mental hospital, could maybe be compared to such films as the 1957 film “12 Angry Men” but this was a generation earlier so comparisons must be undertaken carefully.

Symbolism is displayed in several ways, none of which seemed forced or interfere with the film’s verisimilitude. Two interesting power symbols are the hats that are worn by McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. McMurphy is the only patient that wears a hat, symbolizing freedom as well as his power over the other patients. Nurse Ratched’s cap, much like the conch in “Lord of the Flies” symbolizes her power. At the beginning of the after-party scene, her filthy cap lies on the floor of the ward, symbolizing her fall from power. Clothing, in general, also forms the basis for a power structure. The more clothing you wear, the more power you have or project. It is interesting to see patients in their various states of dress, or undress. Harding, who could very likely return to the outside world if he so chose, often wears a vest. This symbolizes his connection to rational sanity, as well as serving as evidence of his control over the other men. McMurphy is often shown completely dressed in outside clothes.
The film’s style and symbolism, which is a character study of an inward-looking group and doesn’t try to stray from that, is reinforced during the after-party scene. The group of men, all of whom have their own very distinct personalities, must also be considered part of a larger whole. They rarely appear alone or away from each other. In the after-party scene, the symbolism of their clothing is again made apparent, from Harding in his vest, to Martini wearing no pants, to McMurphy and the Chief fully clothed, to the orderlies all dressed in white, exact cookie cutter copies of one another. This may be an attempt by Forman to emphasize their representative function, since as characters they are rather flat and two-dimensional, with only Mr. Washington displaying the faintest notions of depth as a character.

In closing, I would like you to consider the original book by Ken Kesey, which has Chief Bromden as its narrator. It is reported that Ken Kesey hated the idea of the movie, has never seen it, and even sued the film’s producers at one point. Apparently the idea of the Chief as narrator, as opposed to the camera as narrator, didn’t translate well into movie form. The Chief’s thought processes were traded in for a more classic Hollywood narrative style. It’s also important to note that the Chief believes that there is an invisible system that controls his every thought and action through an electronic network of wires and pulleys. In the book, McMurphy is trying without success to get the Chief to raise his hand as the deciding vote as to whether the group will be allowed to listen to the World Series on the radio. Nurse Ratched has ended the voting, adjourned the meeting, and is now leaving the room. This is a critical and key turning point in the book. This passage from the book is a simple one, but one that nevertheless sums up the book’s meaning, as well as the meaning of our studied scene, and especially, the movie as a whole. It is the proverbial moral of the story. It shows a man refusing to be broken down by a soul-crushing system or institution. It shows a man finally taking responsibility for his own thoughts, his own volition, his own will, and inevitably, his own liberty.

Here are Chief Bromden’s thoughts about his hand as he responds to McMurphy’s proddings:
It’s too late to stop it now. McMurphy did something to it that first day, put some kind of hex on it with his hand so it won’t act like I order it. There’s no sense in it, any fool can see; I wouldn’t do it on my own. Just by the way the nurse is staring at me with her mouth empty of words I can see I’m in for trouble, but I can’t stop it. McMurphy’s got hidden wires hooked to it, lifting it slow just to get me out of the fog and into the open where I’m fair game. He’s doing it, wires …
No. That’s not the truth. I lifted it myself.

Works Cited
Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Viking Press & Signet Books, 1962. Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1689.
Sklar, Robert. Film: An International History of the Medium. Prentice Hall, Inc., 1993.

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