Film Analysis: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Film Analysis: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Cuckoo's Nest
“Cuckoo’s Nest” by minnepixel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Film Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Year: 1975
Director: Milos Forman
Country: U.S. (filmed in Oregon)
Genre: Drama
If you could work on this film (change it), what would you change and why?I think that I might’ve changed the portrayal of some of the character’s mental illnesses. Accurately depicting mental illness definitely wasn’t the core focus of the film, but it would’ve been a small change that might’ve made the movie a little better. Although, I honestly don’t feel like I would change anything about the film! 

Film information can be found at

As you view films, consider how the cuts, camera angles, shots, and movement work to create particular meanings. Think about how they establish space, privilege certain characters, suggest relationships, and emphasize themes. In addition to shot distances, angles, editing, and camera movement, note details of the narrative, setting, characters, lighting, props, costume, tone, and sound.

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Who is the protagonist?Randle Patrick McMurphy
2. Who is the antagonist?Nurse Ratched
3. What is the conflict?The conflict is between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, as their opposing beliefs and characteristics clash constantly as McMurphy brings rebellion to the mental institution. While Nurse Ratched rules with an iron fist and only accepts strict schedules, McMurphy is constantly trying to throw that off and disrupt the norm.
4. What is the theme or central, unifying concept? (summarize in one or two words)Individualism, power
5. How is the story told (linear, with flashbacks, flash-forwards, at regular intervals)Storytelling is linear, but not completely continuous (there are parts of the timeline where we jump from one place to another, not giving a scene to the time in between.)
6. What “happens” in the plot (Brief description)?An outspoken and rebellious patient, Randle Patrick McMurphy, who has been placed in a mental institution, attempts to escape and bring his fellow patients along with him. In his struggle to find freedom, he is met with a battle against the strict head nurse, Nurse Ratched. Their conflict involves a gang of other ward patients, bringing life and excitement to the institution.
7. How does the film influence particular reactions on the part of viewers (sound, editing, characterization, camera movement, etc.)? Why does the film encourage such reactions?Throughout the film, there’s a lot of chaos, which is reflected in the sound, editing, and camera movements. In moments where our story line and characters deal with chaos, viewers feel the same way, as the quick and constant changes in what the camera focuses on accelerates the intensity of the scene. Our characters yell in these scenes, speaking over each other constantly. In moments where the scenes are more calm, camera movements are more smooth, changing angles less than usual.
8. Is the setting realistic or stylized? What atmosphere does the setting suggest? Do particular objects or settings serve symbolic functions?I would say that the setting is realistic to what a genuine mental institution would look like (after some very brief research, it turns out that they filmed in an actual mental hospital in Oregon). The only object that I felt served a symbolic function was the water fountain in the tub room, which McMurphy told his fellow patients he would lift and use to break the window and escape. He was unable to lift it early on in the film, but in the end, we see Chief lifting it and escaping by himself. I felt that the water fountain represented freedom.
9. How are the characters costumed and made-up? What does their clothing or makeup reveal about their social standing, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or age? How do costume and makeup convey character?The costumes and makeup of the patients in the mental institution simply reflected on the fact that they were all in a mental institution. Most of the ward patients wore the same color and ward assigned outfit for the entirety of the film, but our protagonist, RP McMurphy, usually wore a different colored shirt underneath his uniform, symbolizing how he stands out in this institution. Each character’s outfit was slightly different in their own small way, for example, Mr. Harding often wore a robe and had his glasses around his neck, showing that he wants to portray himself as being of higher intelligence than his fellow patients. The only scene where we see our characters in something other than their usual uniform is when they all go fishing, which is where we get a little bit of an idea on the social standing of each patient.
10. How does the lighting design shape our perception of character, space, or mood?The lighting throughout the film was relatively consistent, as for the majority of the time, we remained inside the mental institution. The lighting was flat, accentuating the dull colors of the nurse and patient uniforms and the white walls. We see just how lifeless the environment is inside the ward through the use of this lighting.
11. How do camera angles and camera movements shape our view of characters or spaces? What do you see cinematically?As previously mentioned, chaotic scenes used far more changes in camera angles than more relaxed scenes, to reflect on the complete mayhem occurring. Though we see a lot of changes in camera angles, the actual camera movement in this film is pretty limited. However, camera movement played an important role in shaping our view of the antagonist, Nurse Ratched. In a very early scene, the camera slowly zooms in on Nurse Ratched’s face, ending with a close-up of her. This deviation from the normal lack of camera movements gives viewers insight into the power and true nature of our antagonist.
12. What is the music’s purpose in the film? How does it direct our attention within the image? How does it shape our interpretation of the image? What stands out about the music?The only music included in the film is classical music, with an exception of “Jingle Bells”, played on a small record player in the “nurse’s only” room. This music is used to calm some of our background patients, but creates an atmosphere where our main characters are forced to yell in order to hear each other. McMurphy tries to get Nurse Ratched to turn down the music, so the men don’t have to yell over it, but she refuses. She refuses partially because she hates the idea of change, but we also see here that she doesn’t care if there is chaos in the ward. She allows yelling to continue on a daily basis, even though she could be taking simple action to change that and create a more calm environment.
13. How might industrial, social, and economic factors have influenced the film? Describe how this film influences or connects to a culture?The budget for the film was 4.4 million dollars, quite a low number in comparison to most other major films. I feel like this was important to the making of the film, as a surplus of money wasn’t necessary to show the nature of the mental institution or the lives of our characters. In regards to cultural connections, the obvious answer would be that it links into mental illness. But the representation of the illnesses in this film are not well done, and are not meant to be. The connection that viewers should be focusing on has to do with freedom, individualism, and the critiquing of psychiatric practices. Our protagonist represents a sense of hope in this ward, even though this is diminished by our antagonist and the system that she stands for.
14. Give an example of what a film critic had to say about this film. Use credible sources and cite sources. Example: “The Shawshank Redemption Movie Review (1994) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2015.This review points out the strengths and weaknesses of the film, giving it four out of four stars and putting it under the “Great Movies” category. Ebert talks about the film’s approach to certain topics and what the film symbolizes as a whole. He points out the misrepresentation of mental illness and the misogyny involved in the film, but does not use these minor details to diminish the integrity of this classic.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Movie Review (1975) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 February 2003.
15. Select one scene no longer than 5 minutes that represents well the whole film and shows relevant cinematic elements. Write a one-sentence description of the scene and record the time of the scene. Example, from 1:05:00 to 1:10:00. Explain why you chose this scene.In this scene, Nurse Ratched refuses to put on the World Series game for the patients, even though McMurphy had gotten the majority vote to do so. Now, McMurphy sits in front of the TV, narrating the nonexistent game, successfully exciting the other ward patients and defying the orders of Nurse Ratched. (00:47:00 – 00:48:48)

I chose this scene because it represented not only the stark contrast between the film’s protagonist and antagonist, but it also showed how McMurphy brought life into the institution and cared about making his time in the ward as normal as possible.
16. In the selected scene: write a sentence for each of the elements below to justify why this scene best represents the film:
a. Screenwriting:The overlap between McMurphy’s announcement of the fabricated play-by-play and the orders of Nurse Ratched being announced over the loudspeaker emphasized the contrast between the nature of our protagonist and antagonist. We also see the individualism of each patient, as while all of them are celebrating, each person celebrated in their own little way.
b. Sound Design:The overlap between McMurphy and the other patient’s yelling in celebration and the orders of Nurse Ratched being announced over the loudspeaker showed the core difference between the staff and the patients. All of the patients are defying the orders of Nurse Ratched here, as they drown out her commands with their yelps of pure joy. Behind all of this commotion, the classical music goes on, playing on the record player.
c. Camera Movements/Angles:The camera switches between being centered on McMurphy, to showing Nurse Ratched, to showing the reflection of McMurphy in the blank television screen. Once the other ward patients walk out to the main room to stand and sit beside McMurphy, the camera focuses on the reactions of each individual before showing the entire group, jumping up and down in excitement. As McMurphy announces the play-by-play the camera switches to focus on Nurse Ratched, slowly zooming in on her face to show her anger and frustration with the disruption. As has happened before and will happen multiple times after this scene, McMurphy has defied the rule of our antagonist and thrown off the schedule.
d. Light Setup:As with the majority of the movie, the lighting is flat and accentuates the lifeless environment that is the ward. This lighting was consistent during this scene, as the setting didn’t change.
e. Soundtrack/Score:In this scene, we hear the classical music that the nurses play everyday, something that represents the strict ward schedule. As McMurphy begins to yell, we still hear the music quite clearly. But once the other patients join in, hooting and hollering, the music is drowned out.
18. What’s the socio-cultural context of this film?On the surface, this film seems to reflect on the mistreatment and cruelty that takes place in mental institutions and through certain psychiatric practices, but it has a much larger meaning than that. The film represents individualism and free will versus society, showing that conformity will not bring you joy or make you feel better. Rebellion against authority is frowned upon in many countries, especially in the U.S., which is clearly show in this film. The film also touches on the subject of gender and traditional gender roles. For example, our antagonist, Nurse Ratched is a cold, master manipulator who belongs in a position of power, but has been placed in a role that she does not fit into. A traditional role for a woman, especially during this time, would be to work as a caretaker, as our antagonist does. As we can all see, she is not fit to take on this role, but society forces her to, leading her to hold a great amount of power over these men. She lacks power in society as a woman, but is able to get the power she needs in this role. I felt as though this showed that both our protagonist and antagonist are subject to the same injustices perpetrated by society, making them more similar than they appear to be on the surface.

This worksheet was developed with ideas from many IB Film teachers, thus should remain in the Creative Commons

*This wasn’t included in the analysis questions, but I wanted to give a quick synopsis of my personal review of the film and talk about what stood out to me:

  • This film was really fun to watch, and I was interested the whole time. There wasn’t a single moment where I wanted to take my eyes off the screen. And though a lot of the characters weren’t truly developed through the story, I was still able to see each individual as just that; an individual.
  • The ending of this film made me extremely emotional, which I was not expecting in all honesty. The complete escalation and devastation following Billy’s suicide was awful to witness, but clearly expressed the characters of our protagonist and antagonist. We see here that McMurphy genuinely cares about the men in the ward, while Nurse Ratched, the one who is actually supposed to be helping and tending to these men, could care less what happens to them. She is dedicated to her role as an authoritarian leader over these men, but isn’t really dedicated to what should be the purpose of her job.
  • That last thing I want to add is that the contrast between McMurphy’s state in the beginning versus the end of the movie was astonishing. When we are introduced to our protagonist, we hear him say that “they’re telling me I’m crazy over here ’cause I don’t sit there like a goddamn vegetable.” Throughout the film, he proves this to be true; he’s outspoken, rebellious, and always refuses to abide by the rules of the system. He’s full of life in a lifeless environment, and that influences the other patients, most importantly, the Chief. We see the impact of McMurphy in the scene where Chief reveals that he is neither deaf nor mute. There’s a deep connection between the two men that will be crucial to the end of the story. Now, the reason I included that specific quote, is because our protagonist ended up being exactly what he never wanted to be; a lifeless vegetable or drooling zombie who doesn’t rebel or speak up for himself. Chief sees this, and makes the difficult but important decision to kill McMurphy, putting him out of his misery. As viewers experience this devastation and heartbreak for our protagonist, we see Chief take on the role of the hero, doing everything McMurphy said he would do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar