One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a movie set in 1963 following the story of the character Randle Patrick McMurphy. He is a criminal that has been sentenced to a short prison term for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old, having discovered that his girlfriend was not over 18, as she claimed (Forman). To escape prison labor, he orchestrates a transfer to a mental institution, where he hopes that he can spend the rest of his term in luxury. He discovers that his ward in the institution is run by a tyrant, Nurse Ratched, whose primary means of maintaining order is abusing and breaking the individuals’ spirits under her care. She has cowed her patients to the extent where even voluntary patients are too entrenched in institutionalized submission to attempt to check themselves out. Adamant over his freedom McMurphy, also known as Mac, becomes sucked into a never-ending cycle of power games with Nurse Ratched for the patients’ autonomy and free will. At this point, the film begins to explore the true nature of all the patients’ psychological state and create questions about whether or not they belong in the ward.

Mac’s stay allows him to form close friendships with fellow patients, with the closest being Billy Bibbit, who is suicidal and suffers from a stutter, and Chief, an extremely tall, muscular Native American patient with schizophrenia. He is assumed by the ward population to be deaf and dumb. Mac sees in Billy, a younger brother, to teach to enjoy life and a confidante in Chief. Mac’s constant battle of wills with Nurse Ratched affects the patients in several ways, including starting gambling habits, cigarette rationing, and attempts to make their lives more comfortable through incorporating more entertainment.

He eventually finds out that he is not likely to be released from the hospital when his sentence ends, and will instead be released when Ratched feels necessary. Upset, he begins to plan for his and a few other voluntary cases’ escape from the ward. Before their escape, he plans a party with the help of his girlfriend, Candy. She brings liquor and a friend, and Billy becomes very taken with Candy. Billy is eventually discovered in the office having sex with Candy, and Nurse Ratched’s subsequent berating makes triggers his suicidal tendencies. Upon discovering that Billy killed himself, Mac flies into a rage and strangles Ratched to near death. Although she survives, Mac is lobotomized and turned into a vegetable. Discovering his unresponsive friend, Chief unhappily euthanizes him and completes the escape plan that Mac never could.

General Impressions

My general impression of the film was that it has an exciting look at the lives of the people living in institutionalized care. While I found the character of Nurse Ratched extreme in terms of her tyranny, her role did open my eyes to the fact that those living in such institutions must often have the hospital administration govern their entire world. Her flagrant abuse of power raised questions in my mind on how often this kind of behavior goes on without any intervention from advocacy of the patients’ rights to human dignity.

Mac’s rebellion against the status quo was very refreshing, as it presented a way for the patients to get some justice or better living conditions finally. I had a lot of sympathy for the way they were being treated, and Mac’s fight to undermine the nurse made me root for him. I also found the scenes showing Nurse Ratched’s control of the population very subtle. She always made an effort to seem very controlled and rational, even as she was tyrannical. I felt that the movie was well written, as her demeanor explained why she had been allowed to run the ward this way for so long.

The disabilities portrayed in the film ranged from simple issues such as stutters to more severe issues like anxiety and schizophrenia. However, despite acknowledging that many of the patients in the film did suffer from real mental disabilities that negatively affected their daily lives, the film also showed that these people could be autonomous and rational participants in the human experience. In several scenes, their ability to express themselves, have goals, examine their take on reality, and be autonomous were explored. For example, in the cigarette scene, several patients speak up for themselves, asking intelligent questions and arguing their points rationally.

I would recommend the film for anyone to watch. It tackles an issue that we often do not consider – the welfare of institutionalized patients. It also asks questions on whether activism is worth it, and it shows patients with mental disabilities in a different light compared to the media – as thinking, feeling individuals who are just like anyone else.


            One of the significant factors of this movie is the aspect of mental disability shown in the film. The movie does a fantastic job of portraying people with mental disabilities: given that the majority of the characters, except for Mac and the institution staff, have been admitted into the hospital for one mental illness diagnosis or another. 

The first concept that will be used for this analysis is ableism. Ableism refers to a concept whereby people with different disabilities in various forms are discriminated against. Ableism is explored in the film, as the patients are often discriminated against by the institution’s authorities. Nurse Ratched drives this discrimination by limiting their activities, prohibiting their engagement in entertainment, and otherwise restricting their lives to the degree that will make them submissive and agreeable to her agenda (Lambe 298). She can do so because the system under which she works allows her to have an unreasonable degree of control over the mentally disabled patients that she would not have over more healthy patients. As a result, the system and her character are ableist. The film does not necessarily advocate for ableism, however. It merely portrays it. It could be argued that the film advocates for disabled individuals’ rights by showcasing the pervasive and harmful nature of ableist systems.

 The next concept is that of tropes. Regarding tropes, the major one in this film is that of the ‘disability faker’. The disability faker trope is when a character does not have a mental disability but pretends to have one. In this case, Mac is a disability faker, and this trope drives the plot.

            Inspiration porn is another trope to consider. Inspiration porn occurs when images of people with disabilities doing ordinary things are used to inspire others to work hard or keep trying. In the case of this film, there was not much of an inspiration porn take on the patients’ activities. Instead, the film focused on their fight to be treated with dignity.

            Cripface refers to the depiction of characters with visible disabilities by actors without visible disabilities. In the case of this film, for the majority of the time, Cripface does not apply. None of the characters in the film have visible disabilities, with all their issues being mental. The actors, therefore, do not demonstrate any visible signs of mental disabilities. Instead, they portray in their manner and actions a degree of mental illness. Since it is inaccurate to say that people with mental illnesses look a certain way, the actors cannot adopt a cripface in this film. However, towards the end, Mac is depicted to be in a vegetative state. It could be argued that this is cripface. However, as a vegetative actor would not be able to consent to act in a film, it would have been impossible for one to be cast in Mac’s role.     

            This film passes the Bechdel test as there are multiple characters with disabilities involved in significant plot developments, such as Billy and Chief (Selisker 506). Furthermore, the film does a great job of showing mental conditions as neither more nor less severe than they are in real life (Disability Thinking). Finally, characters with disabilities are both givers and receivers, providing support for Mac and receiving it in return. With regards to Blaska’s Images and Encounters Profile, there is a demonstration of respect for people with disabilities, demonstrated by Mac’s beliefs that the patients deserve better treatment (Blaska 34). There is also a promotion of empathy rather than pity, which is present throughout the movie. Lastly, the film stresses a person first over disability by focusing on the characters’ lives over their illnesses. Fries test asks if a work has more than one disabled character, which it does, and if they have their narrative purpose, which they do (Fries 1). The characters’ disabilities are not eradicated by curing or killing in the end, except for Billy, who kills himself. 


            One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an intriguing film exploring the nature of mental illness and disability, and how we view them at an institutional and systemic level. It shows that even patients with mental disabilities have personality, goals, ambition, and character. It also demonstrates how an ableist approach in their care can negatively affect their quality of life to such a great extent that it can impede rather than assist their contributions to society. Through the actions of Nurse Ratched, the audience sees how it is possible to even exacerbate seemingly easily manageable conditions by continuously crushing the spirits of such individuals, and working towards making their lives worse rather than better. I believe the film was ahead of its time as its contents passed all the tests on the various aspects of displaying the lives of individuals with disabilities. It demonstrates care and understanding of disabled people’s rights that many modern films are unable to demonstrate even today.

Works Cited

Blaska, Joan. “Children’s Literature That Includes Characters with Disabilities or Illnesses.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 1, 2004.

Forman, Milos. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Fantasy Films, 1975.

Fries, Kenny. Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the inside Out. Plume Books, 1997.

Lambe, Jennifer. “Memory Politics: Psychiatric Critique, Cultural Protest, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Literature and Medicine, vol. 37, no. 2, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019, pp. 298–324.

Selisker, Scott. “The Bechdel Test and the Social Form of Character Networks.” New Literary History, vol. 46, no. 3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015, pp. 505–523.

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