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Textual Analysis of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Submission details: 1000 words on a close reading of a sequence of a film/documentary/new media text of your choice Film: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Directed by Miles Forman Starring Jack Nicholson One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is not a film that adheres to a strict set of generic conventions. However, my understanding of the film as a media text was helped when I recognized that it is a film that follows a classic Hollywood narrative. Therefore, mimetic theories of film narration can be applied to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, as the narration style presents a spectacle that is being told through the characters’ eyes.

This is in contrast to diagetic theories of narration; in the words of Plato, the poet himself is the speaker and does not attempt to suggest to us that anyone but himself is speaking? (Bordwell 1985) The narrative structure of the scene I am analyzing could be described as one that follows Bordwell’s description of the classic Hollywood narrative. According to Bordwell (1985), the introduction [in a classic Hollywood narrative] typically includes a shot that establishes characters in space and time?. In this scene, the director shows first where the lead character (Jack Nicholson in the role of RP McMurphy) is, before showing viewers through a series of cut shots the proximity of all the other characters.

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As the characters interact, the scene is broken up into closer views of action and reaction?. This is particularly true in this scene; two of the patients are playing monopoly, one is standing at the door with a mop, two more patients are playing draughts, some are just standing around minding their own business. At the same time, McMurphy sits nonchalantly in the corner, feet resting high on the washbasin. All of these actions are shot individually; there is not an instance where two men doing one action are shot with one man doing something else. The scene usually closes on a portion of space.

Again this structure can be applied to this scene, as in the final shot of the scene, McMurphy walks out of the room. He stops in the doorway, and not only is he the central focus of the final shot, but he is also framed in the doorway. This shot isolates a fragment of the scene, with McMurphy in this scene and throughout being the subject of much isolation. According to Pudovkin (as cited in Bordwell (1985), the camera lens should represent the eyes of an implicit observer taking action. The change of shot will then correspond to the natural transference of attention of an imaginary observer. In this scene, the director rigidly follows this guideline, with a frequent cutting from the main source of action to the observer of the action and back again.

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By positioning the camera in this scene, the viewer can increase their understanding of the relationship between the audience, the camera and characters (Gibbs 2002). As we are effectively assuming the role of a character (or ? in their shoes?), we also assume their view of the scene. McMurphy tries in vain to pull a washbasin out of the floor to put it through the hospital window so that he can escape the hospital. After two mammoth but unsuccessful attempts, McMurphy walks towards the door in defeat. The camera now switches to a more detached, unimposing mid-focus shot. We have resumed the role of viewer again, having enjoyed our moment in the scene.

The director realizes the danger of the viewer becoming too detached, and McMurphy stops at the door to re-focus our attention. But I tried, didn’t I God Damnit, at least I did that? with that single sentence, the viewer’s understanding of McMurphy’s character’s mentality is re-enforced. The theme of conflict in this scene is primarily developed through the use of the order-disorder-restored order model. Perhaps this is best illustrated in conjunction with the use of lighting in this scene. The area McMurphy is sitting in contrasts with the area that the rest of the patients occupy.

They are sitting in a well-lit area where they, so low on confidence and self-esteem, can feel secure. McMurphy, a rebel who thrives on conflict, is sitting in a much darker light. The conflict here occurs as much out of McMurphy’s boredom as it does his wanting to challenge authority. Out of the darkness, McMurphy sprays the other patients with a hose, upsetting the status quo. At this stage, he has moved into a less dark area and later in the scene, when he fails to pull the sink out of the floor, he stands in the same light as the other patients. The irony here is that the conflict McMurphy is instigating to challenge authority is, making him become more like the patient than the wild, bubbly and sometimes dangerous person that he once was.

Realistic motivation corroborates the compositional motivation achieved through cause and effect (Bordwell 1985). The reality portrayed in One Flew Over The Cuckoo?s Nest achieves a tacit coherence among events, [and] consistency and clarity of individual identity? (Bordwell 1985). The viewer never has to wonder as to why a character is undertaking a particular course of action. This is a testament to the director’s grasp on the importance and significance of using high levels of verisimilitude. Gibbs (2002) describes two different ways of addressing coherence in film.

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He writes about coherence across the work. The use of visual motifs can achieve this. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, one of the most effective visual motifs is the cigarettes, a notepad and a pencil that McMurphy has in his shirt. Although his resolve and stomach for the fight have weakened in a later sequence, he appears without these motifs. In each case, the subsequent appearance of the motif brings with it the weight of earlier associations. (Gibbs 2002). So the inclusion of and later the absence of this motif is a catalyst for cognitive questions and association patterns that will challenge the viewer’s interpretation and understanding of the film and its characters.

According to Bordwell (1985), early author theory was defined by recurrent themes or generic innovations. However, the director Milos Forman has consistently addressed the subject matter and deeply American topics and usually concerning characters that are interesting individuals set apart by their idiosyncrasies. As in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, many of his characters are outsiders and non-conformists ( Lately, these characters include the comedian Andy Kauffman (1997), the notorious founder of Hustler magazine Larry Flynt (1996). In his 1981 film Ragtime, he tells the story of a jazz player victimized for the colour of his skin ( 2004).

Appendix. One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. Below is an outline of the scene that I am analyzing. The scene begins with McMurphy sitting alone with his feet resting on the sink. The exposition shows us who else is in the room. They consist of two men playing Monopoly, two more are doing a jigsaw, one man is standing in the doorway, and two other men are just standing around the room. Martini and Harding are playing the board game Monopoly, but this quickly descends into farce when Martini starts putting pieces on the board that aren’t supposed to be there. Harding tries to explain this to Martini for the third time, but a third man, Taber, who appears in the scene for the first time, interrupts their conversation.

Why don’t you knock off the bullshit Harding and play the game asks Taber, somewhat provocatively? An argument ensues between Taber and Harding. They are interrupted by McMurphy, who sprays the hose from the washbasin, straight at the men who are arguing and everyone else in the room. McMurphy then taunts Harding regarding an incident in an earlier scene. McMurphy then says that he is going downtown by pulling the sink out of the floor, putting it through the window and walking down the hall to freedom. He says that anyone is free to join him but only Cheswick, who had been sitting watching the two men playing monopoly, says he’d like to go.

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Besides Cheswick, the reaction of the patients is nothing more than a scoff in unison; McMurphy says that he’ll take bets that he can do it. Taber bets one dollar, and Martini bets a dime. Billy, who had been standing quietly in the corner, warns McMurphy that nobody could lift the sink. Undeterred McMurphy taunts Harding, who bets $25. Billy warns McMurphy for the second time, but McMurphy is determined to Get out of my way son, you’re using my oxygen, you know what I mean.

McMurphy tries once and fails. Giving up, asks Harding. No warming up, just warming up, warming up replies McMurphy. McMurphy’s face looks as if it is about to explode; such is his effort. His efforts are in vain, however, and he walks towards the door. With his back to the camera, McMurphy stops just before walking out of the door, But I tried, didn’t I God Dammit, at least I did that. Ends.


  • Bordwell, D. 1985. Narration in the fiction film. Great Britain. Methuen&Co. Ltd.
  • Gibbs, J. 2002. Mise-en-scene Film style and interpretation. Great Britain.Wallflower Press.
  • Hamilton, E. & Cairns, H. (eds) 1963. The Republic The Collected Dialogues of Plato IN D, Bordwell. 1985. Narration in the fiction film. Great Britain. Methuen &Co. Ltd. Pp 16.
  • Pudovkin, V.I. translated and edited by Montagu, I. 1970 Film Technique and Film Acting IN D, Bordwell. 1985. Narration in the fiction film. Great Britain. Methuen &Co. Ltd. Pp 9.
  • Author Unknown. <> [Accessed 1 May 2004]
  • Author Unknown. <> [Accessed 3 May 2004]

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