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.

			MCMURPHY
With this thing! I'm gonna put this
thing right through the window,
that's how!
HARDING
You mean you're going to try to
pick that thing up and shove it
through the window?
MCMURPHY
You're fuckin' A-right, I am!
HARDING (CONT'D)
With your own two hands?
MCMURPHY
You heard me the first time!
TABER
I'll bet a buck you don't do it!
MCMURPHY
You're on!
BILLY
M-M-Mack, y-y-y-you c-c-can't l-l
lift that thing!
MCMURPHY
Stand aside, son. Any more takers?
SEFELT
I'll bet a dollar.
FREDRICKSON
Me, too...
MCMURPHY
Right!
MARTINI
A nickel.
SCANLON
A dime.
MCMURPHY
Okay. Who else?
HARDING
Twenty-five dollars.
MCMURPHY
(knows he's taking a bad
bet)
Okay, Harding, you're on.
HARDING
Okay, sucker.
MCMURPHY
Yeah... Okay, stand aside, you
guys! You're usin' up my oxygen!
The Acutes stand aside and McMurphy steps up to the machine.He shifts his feet to get a good stance, wipes his hands on
his thighs, leans down and gets hold of the levers on each
side, and strains.
Bromden watches, in awe of McMurphy.McMurphy turns loose, straightens up and shifts his feet for
a better position.
HARDING
Giving up?
MCMURPHY
Just warmin' up.
He grabs the levers again. His whole body shakes with the
strain. For just a second we HEAR the cement GRIND. Then his
breath explodes and he falls back limp against the wall.
There's blood on his hands. No sound but his rasping breath.
He opens his eyes and looks around. Then pulls out a
pocketful of IOU's and tries to sort them out, but his hands
are frozen into red claws. He throws the whole bundle on the
floor and walks out. At the door, he turns back.
MCMURPHY
But I tried. Goddammit, I sure as
hell did that much. Didn't I?
McMurphy exits.

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.

as Bromden stands by the window looking out. A long beat,
then he turns into the room and looks around.
BROMDEN'S POVThe 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.
BROMDEN
(whispering in McMurphy's
ear)
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 - DAYBREAKThe night attendant continues to sleep as Bromden passes the
nurses' station, heading for the tub room.
INT. TUB ROOM - DAWNas 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 - DAWNas 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 - DAWNas the night attendant comes out of the nurses' station and
looks confusedly around. Then he spots the shattered window.
EXT. COUNTRYSIDE - EXTREME LONG SHOT - SUNRISERolling hills, forests and distant mountains, bathed in
sunlight, as Bromden runs across a far-off meadow.

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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