The 1970s in America are commonly seen as a revolutionary decade for film. Films produced in that era like the Godfather, Mean Streets, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown have defined what audiences expect and directors and actors want to create ever since. The demise of the studio system brought the rise of great directors- Polanski, Scorsese, Coppola- whose works consciously looked to the European auteur tradition rather than to the style of a particular studio. The world of film changed forever, becoming less formal and more rebellious and more innovative. One flew over the Cuckoo's nest sits in this tradition. It employed non-traditional actors, placed an emphasis on verrisimilitude and its stance was deliberately anti-establishment. The film is set inside a deserted wing of a mental asylum. Many of the actors were themselves inmates of the asylum and the chief psychiatrist took a role in the film. We have to remember how self consiciously 'new' the film was tyring to be when we analyse its purpose.
The film is about a character who finds himself inside a mental asylum as an alternative to being placed in prison. R.P. McMurphy is a petty criminal with nothing particularly vile in his record but equally with a multitude of lesser offences- minor assaults, petty thefts and statutory rape (of a seductive fifteen year old by McMurphy's own account). This is our hero. He is basically unrepentant. He comes to the asylum because he wants to escape being sent to prison and so volunteers for a mental examination. In the asylum he meets various other patients, a massive Indian called by everyone 'Chief', various other insane elder men including the educated Harding, the aggressive Taber, depressive Billy, delusional Martini and childish Cheswick. The cast is complete when we add the supervising nurse, Nurse Ratchett and her attendants- one female nurse and several young black men. McMurphy decides to rouse the madmen- to try and get them all to watch the baseball every evening, to play cards seriously and even at one point to escape the asylum to go fishing. Nurse Ratchett thwarts him at every step.
The message is partly libertarian. The criminal is lauded and not shown to be anything more than generally benevolent. Nurse Ratchett on the other hand is shown as a true repressive- she never speaks abovea moderate tone- she strikes McMurphy with repressed emotion and mean spirited bureacracy. For him and for the film maker, madness is not a condition but an imposition from society. In social philosophy this took the form of Foucault's theory of madness as an alternative to leprosy as a means of exiling the marginal, in this film it takes the form of R.P. McMurphy and his minor rebellion. We know that he will not succeed for to some extent he actually beleives that the institution is what the institution proclaims itself to be, a place for the care of the mad, whereas what it is is a place for the confinement of the mad. Nurse Ratchett does not- as she shows most clearly with Billy towards the end- interest herself in what is good for the mad, but in what can control them.
This view of psychology is perfectly good for a radical director or philosopher, it does not really help anyone to understand the mad or to explain criminality. Examine the film another way and it does start to reveal more interesting things. McMurphy may not succeed in his ultimate objective but he does succeed in changing the atmosphere of the asylum. As a study in charisma the film works far better than as a study in madness. We see the mad men respond to McMurphy's swagger and his enthusiasm. What marks him out from Nurse Ratchett and her attendants is that he pretends the mad are sane, whereas they pretend they are insane. The truth is that all the men are partly sane and partly insane- even Martini can vote for the baseball game- and McMurphy's assumption flatters them and rouses them to join in with his games, his activities and his trips. Whereas Ratchett's power is based upon her formal authority, McMurphy's is based upon his informal charisma.
Two types of power and two types of authority clash together in the film. They produce a tragedy but they also provide an insight into the ways that human beings relate to madness. McMurphy has nothing to lose, he has gone as one of the men and therefore can make these informal connections with them. He does not have to treat them. Insofar as he does have attitudes to their conditions, he wonders why they are not doing what he would do. His main purpose in life though is to get a cushy ride in the asylum and get out to where he can chase girls and have fun. Nurse Ratchett is in the asylum for good and her position makes it hard for her to exert McMurphy's informal power, she is restrained from it by her position. She understands the conditions of the men around her and whereas she seeks to make them better, does so as a professional not someone who seeks in any way to be their friend. Her coolness and her confinement to formality are the rules of professionalism.
In this sense the real division within the film is between the professional and the charismatic and the kinds of power that they exert. McMurphy may be a criminal but he can communicate on another level to these men and care for them on another level to Nurse Ratchett. The irony of the film is that he is almost certainly a worse human being than Ratchett, on one level the film is simple authoritarianism, on the other it opens up the chasm for us between the doctor and the fellow human being, the fellow patient. A doctor must be cool and professional to some extent to survive, a patient can get involved in a way because he or she bears no responsibility for the way that the case will go. One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest shows how professionals can go a step further and start thinking about protecting themselves rather than their objects. This danger is always there and Nurse Ratchett has fallen victim to imagining that her patient's good is equivalent to her own good.