Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), by Miloš Forman.
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…” – Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man
Troubled times often produce great art. In 1970s America, directors finding freedom after the collapse of the old Hollywood system were able to use the uncertainty and paranoia of the time as muse, producing an incredible sequence of films. Those movies captured the sombre tone of the Nixon and late Vietnam era, as well as channelling the psychic fallout from the tumultuous previous decade. They were cynical, fatalistic, angry, paranoid, often with ambiguous or dislikeable protagonists and downbeat conclusions. But they were – and still are – a feast for cinephiles.
Take a look at some of the key films. Unhinged loner Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) toys with the idea of assassinating a politician before shooting up a brothel and becoming a celebrity instead. Bank robber Sonny Wortzik (Dog Day Afternoon, 1975) holds a mini-revolution outside his own bungled heist with his famous chant of “Attica!”. Paranoid, lonely surveillance expert Harry Caul (The Conversation, 1974) bugs a private chat, thinks he has uncovered a murder plot and ends up getting bugged himself.
Even the Devil got in on the action (The Exorcist, 1973), possessing a young girl in Washington D.C. (Coincidence, given Nixon was still in office at the time?) – two priests ride in to save her and pay with their lives. On and on down the list, the stories are bleak and pessimistic, but the film-making brilliant.
Sitting high and proud among the best films of the period is Miloš Forman‘s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Adapted from Ken Kesey’s acclaimed first novel, it is the story of brawling, free-spirited Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a convict who acts crazy to avoid a stint of hard labour by getting transferred to a psychiatric ward instead. Expecting an easier life on the ward, he immediately butts heads with the formidable Nurse Ratched, played with chilling intensity by Louise Fletcher.
Ratched enjoys total dominion over her patients, controlling them with passive-aggressive questioning, insinuation and threats, all delivered with a calm voice and a glacial stare. The men on the ward exist in meek subservience to the nurse, either too lacking in self-confidence or troubled by their mental issues to stick up for themselves. McMurphy sees what is happening immediately, and through his rebellious nature, encourages his new friends to show a little backbone. However, McMurphy fails to realise the danger that fighting back against the nurse presents to himself.
Published in 1962, Kesey’s novel prefigured the wave of anti-establishment feeling that swept America in the mid-Sixties. By the time Forman’s film version went into production in 1975, the story of a non-conformist’s struggle against authoritarian leadership played just as well to a post-Summer of Love, post-Altamont, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam audience.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is only one of three films to win the “Big Five” Oscars – Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay (the others are It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs).
The film is centred on Nicholson’s gigantic presence, and he’s magnificent – the film came along when Nicholson was at the peak of his abilities. While the performance shows hints of the over-the-top tendencies that would typify his acting in his later career, it suits the role here. He also deserves credit for offering great support to the film’s fantastic ensemble cast and it is a delight to watch the other actors play off him. We watch as Billy Bibbitt (Brad Dourif), a shy, stammering young man, gains confidence from McMurphy’s friendship, and Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), the towering native-American everyone thought was deaf-mute, emerges from behind the shield of silence he has created for himself. Their emancipation from the domineering nurse is heart-warming and funny, making the eventual turn towards tragedy all the more shattering.
Miloš Forman attracted interest from the film’s producers mainly thanks to The Firemen’s Ball (Hoří, má panenko), his satirical comedy that upset the Czechoslovakian communist party so much that it was “banned forever”. Given the allegorical subtext of the source novel, Forman was well suited to the role, having fallen foul of the communist censors himself and leaving his home country behind after Warsaw Pact troops crushed the Prague Spring in 1968. As he wrote in an article for the New York Times in 2012:
“To me [Kesey’s novel] was not just literature but real life, the life I lived in Czechoslovakia from my birth in 1932 until 1968. The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do; what I was or was not allowed to say; where I was and was not allowed to go; even who I was and was not.”
Kirk Douglas, who played McMurphy in the Broadway version and owned the book rights, sent Forman a letter in the Sixties offering him the chance to direct a film version. The letter never arrived. Forman’s website suggests the secret police may have had something to do with the missing correspondence.
Forman directs the film with the conviction of a man whose destiny depends on it. He demonstrates a clear-eyed fervour for the material, guiding the story with passion and patience, allowing the actors plenty of room to breathe. Forman brought an almost documentary feel to the film, shooting in the same mental hospital Kesey had set his novel in, with real residents as extras. He allowed the lengthy dialogue scenes to play out to their fullest with a loose, improvisatory rhythm, sometimes filming without the actors knowing to heighten the realism.
The screenplay disposes of the book’s hallucinatory elements and Chief Bromden’s narration, switching the main focus to McMurphy. This displeased Kesey so much that he refused to see the film – which is a shame because he missed out on a fantastic movie. It is hard to imagine how his trippy vision would have played out on screen effectively, as it may have distracted from the story’s power.
The film concludes on a note that is simultaneously sad and triumphant, and it feels fresh and new with each viewing. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of those films that always feels like it might end differently this time, even though I’ve seen it about twenty times before. Yet I’m glad it doesn’t, because the ending is absolutely perfect.
By Lee Adams
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied film at university but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.
This is a slightly amended version of the article first published by the Brno Expat Centre.