Many of the best movie scenes are payoffs to plot elements that have been set up earlier in the story. And often, the set-up and payoff involve a physical object, something that becomes imbued with symbolic meaning and, therefore, emotional power. An excellent example of this is in the superb movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey, and directed by Milos Forman.
Midway through the movie, R.P. MacMurphy (Jack Nicholson) makes a bet that he can lift what is described in the script as a “heavy machine.” He fails, but not without trying. Hard. One of the layers of subtext is to demonstrated MacMurphy’s indomitable spirit, he will not let this place (sanitorium) and these people (‘crazy’ people) defeat him.
At the end of the movie, MacMurphy is wheeled back into the room with the other patients — and in fact, he has been ‘defeated,’ victim of a lobotomy. It is an all is lost moment for one patient in particular Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) who came out of his silent shell directly because of MacMurphy’s encouragement.
In this scene, Bromden decides to act by doing two things: First, free MacMurphy from a lifetime of imprisonment; second honor his old friend by going back to that “heavy machine” and freeing himself.
INT. MEN’S DORM — DAYBREAK
as Bromden stands by the window looking out. A long beat,
then he turns into the room and looks around.
The patients are all asleep. The new night attendant is fast
asleep in the nurses’ station.
Bromden quietly takes his pillow and goes to McMurphy’s bed,
where he kneels and puts his head very close to McMurphy’s.
A long beat as Bromden studies McMurphy’s face.
When I first came here I was so scared
of being lost I had to holler so
they could track me… I figured
anything was better than being lost…
On the last word, Bromden places his pillow over McMurphy’s
face and begins to suffocate him. McMurphy starts thrashing
and Bromden lies full length on McMurphy. A long beat, then
the thrashing ends. Bromden gets off McMurphy, replaces his
pillow, and crosses down the aisle toward the day room.
INT. DAY ROOM — DAYBREAK
The night attendant continues to sleep as Bromden passes the
nurses’ station, heading for the tub room.
INT. TUB ROOM — DAWN
as Bromden crosses to the heavy machine which McMurphy had
once tried to lift, sizes it up, then bends over and takes
hold and heaves. The GRINDING WEIGHT is HEARD as Bromden
exerts all his strength, slowly lifts the machine off the
floor, balances it above his shoulders, then crosses out of
the tub room.
INT. DAY ROOM — DAWN
as Bromden comes around the corner and past the sleeping
night attendant in the nurses’ station.
Bromden lines himself up with the window across the room,
then starts toward it, picking up speed as he goes. Then, at
the last moment, he stops and, with an enormous effort, he
hurls the machine through the security screen and the window.
A LOUD CRASH.
In the nurses’ station, the night attendant starts awake and
looks around. Too late as Bromden vaults through the window.
CAMERA HOLDS on window as Bromden runs across the grounds
and disappears into the pine trees.
INT. DAY ROOM — DAWN
as the night attendant comes out of the nurses’ station and
looks confusedly around. Then he spots the shattered window.
EXT. COUNTRYSIDE — EXTREME LONG SHOT — SUNRISE
Rolling hills, forests and distant mountains, bathed in
sunlight, as Bromden runs across a far-off meadow.
Here is the ending sequence:
Several key differences between script and screen, but the arc of the scene is the same. One of the most powerful endings in movie history.