Great Scene: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

Many of the best movie scenes are payoffs to plot elements that have been set up earlier in the story. Often the set-up and payoff involves 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) describes how he plans to escape.

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.

Here is the ending sequence in the movie:

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.

For more articles in the Great Scene series, go here.

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