A mental institution is the setting for Ken Kesey’s 1962 parable about the power of the state.
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a best-selling novel of the 1960s and was then made into a play that ran on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the lead and has since been staged widely throughout the country. So it is probable that the general idea of the film, directed by Milos Forman and with Jack Nicholson in the lead (script by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman), will be known even to moviegoers who, like me, have not read the book or seen the play. Briefly, then:
Randle P. McMurphy (Nicholson), a bright and impetuous jailbird, feigns lunacy and gets himself transferred to a state hospital, where, he hopes, living conditions will be more to his liking. He is assigned to a minimum security ward that is presided over by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), whose lust to dominate makes her approximately as mad as her charges and whose effect on them is anything but therapeutic. McMurphy, a sworn rebel against authority and a powerful hater of bullies, declares war on Nurse Ratched. He wins a number of hilarious skirmishes (small wonder that the book and play have been so successful), but in the end they cost him his life.
My impulse is to call One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a most engaging fairy tale, with the salt of horror not uncommon in the genre. It is hard otherwise to accept the exceedingly bizarre career of inmate McMurphy. He is, in the first place, a marvelously successful healer of damaged minds, penetrating with faultless dexterity the surface foibles of his companions to find the hidden cores of sanity. Beyond that, the security procedures of the hospital are so excessively lax that McMurphy can hijack a busload of inmates, take them on an all-day ocean fishing trip and bring them home, happy, unharmed and displaying a bumper catch. When he decides to set the stage for his own departure to Canada, he has only to borrow the key to a window grating and in come a couple of willing girls (summoned by him on the office phone), armed with a case of mixed liquors and ready for love. The resulting saturnalia, with the hi-fl blasting at full volume and drunken eccentrics dancing through the corridors at three o’clock in the morning, passes unnoticed by the custodial staff and has a generally excellent effect on the revelers.
A fairy tale scene, surely, but that brings me to the somewhat enigmatic position of Dr. Dean Brooks in this whole affair. Dr. Brooks is the superintendent of the Oregon State Hospital at Salem, where the film was made. Not only did he make his facilities available for shooting the picture, with members of the staff serving as technical consultants and a great many of the patients on the payroll as background actors, but he himself plays Dr. Spivey, the fictional hospital superintendent, a man of good will whose innocence (probably reinforced by laziness) traps him into thinking Ratched the finest nurse on his staff and McMurphy’s manifestly phony nuttiness a possibly genuine mania.