Independent films have become such a mainstay of American cinema that it is difficult to tell what should be considered independent and what should be considered a major production these days. Small, independent film studios can gain such a following that they are soon producing movies that are seen by millions. Of course, this was not always the case because the reason there are indie films is because of the rebellion over the control of the large studios. In the case of the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" it was an indie film, but it was seen by a large audience. Like many indie films of that time and this though, it had a flare that could not be seen in major motion pictures. Since major motion picture studios were interested more in the bottom line and worried about turning a profit for their investors, they felt that they could not make films that showed an edgier side. However, indie film makers did not have the same worries. Films were made on budgets and they did not depend on large viewing audiences to justify their existence. The movie in question is about nonconformity, rebellion, oppression, tragedy and triumph. These are the elements that have outlined the independent film movement since film makers were rebelling against a tyrannical Thomas Edison. This film is a mirror of the movement itself.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a film that seems to engage everyone who sees it, especially in the case of the main characters. Some have a hard time reconciling the abuse they see on the screen to the reality of everyday life for mentally ill adults. Some feel that Ratched was partly justified in her treatment of the patients because they needed to be controlled based on what happened at the end of the movie. Ratched may not be the best model of a mental health nurse because she is trying to create order in a situation that is very disorderly. The illnesses that the patients have are manifested in the chaos that they eventually create. Ratched seems to understand that the only way to maintain a calm atmosphere for the patients is to give them order and quiet. Otherwise, they would be likely to create a great deal of chaos.
Unfortunately, an element that she could not control was introduced into her environment. Jack Nicholson's character, McMurphy, is a small-time crook who is good at creating chaos. The reason that he is in the institution in the first place is because the prison farm where he is assigned requires him to get a psychological evaluation. He has determined that he would rather stay in the relative calm of the mental hospital than do the hard labor to which he was sentenced. McMurphy is a leader to the people in the ward because none of them have the tools that McMurphy has. He is a classic manipulator, but he starts to feel sorry for the inmates after he meets nurse Ratched and sees the controlled conditions that the residents are forced to live in.
It is possible for the viewer to see when McMurphy becomes a member of the community. The inmates are playing cards, as they always seem to be, and McMurphy is winning every game. When Ratched sees that McMurphy is taking everyone's cigarettes, she redistributes them to all of the other residents so that they will have some. McMurphy is not happy about this, but it does seem to wake him up to the plight of the other patients. Prior to this point, he was completely self-interested, but he starts to become more cognizant of their needs.
One of the prominent features of the movie is that McMurphy tries to show the patients in the mental ward what life is like for people on the outside. He is starting to identify with them, and he is feeling sorry for them. His narcissistic streak is still evident though because he still does what he wants without regard to the consequences. There are several points in the movie that illustrate this. He takes everyone in the ward on a boating excursion, he throws a party in the ward, and he encourages Billy to have sex. All of these adventures seem like god ideas at the time because he is showing the residents what he believes it is like to live on the outside. But, his view is skewed from reality too.
One of the major points of the movie is to get the viewer engaged in the battle between McMurphy and nurse Ratched. They seem to be polar opposites, but they are actually trying to accomplish the same goal. They are trying to make the lives of the patients as normal as possible. Nurse Ratched does this from a strict institutional viewpoint, while McMurphy tries to do the same thing through his freedom craving, rebellious reality. Neither viewpoint is perfect, but the movie shows that McMurphy acts from a point of misunderstanding, while Ratched does know the population and tries to make their lives as pleasant as possible within the confines they are cursed with.
Looking at the movie from the outside, it is a perfect example of what an independent film is supposed to be. The movie tries to shock its viewers with an unconventional view at a ridiculous situation, the characters offer an anti-establishment vs. establishment confrontation, and it has an appeal to the type of audience described as that sought by indie film makers. The reason that this movie is so appealing as an indie offering and not necessarily as a mainstream motion picture is that the studios were, and, to some extent, still are worried about what the average movie fan will feel about the movie. The average fan wants to go and be entertained with a simple storyline and with something that they are used to. Most major motion pictures at the time had similar plots because they did not want to upset their fans. Westerns, where the good guys and bad guys were distinguishable, where a slight love story was apparent, and where good always prevailed were the accepted fare. Of course, there were other types of movies, but they offered the same bland plots as the Westerns. Indie films were not concerned about the box office draw as much, so they were free to explore the medium to a greater extent. Also, the plot lines in an indie film could skew from the norm.
In the case of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the normal movie experience was altered a great deal. Basically, there was no good or bad that could be latched on to. It is easy to see Nurse Ratched as "bad" because she places too many restrictions on the patients, but her antagonist can be seen the same way. There are two protagonists and two antagonists in the movie, it just depends on which part one is talking about. For example, in the scene where Nurse Ratched looks at the destruction of the previous night's party in the ward, she can immediately be seen as the character in the right as she seeks to create some order in the chaos. McMurphy, in this case, is the antagonist because he is defiant, and he is the one who engendered the chaos in the first place. However, their roles quickly change when Nurse Ratched finds Billy and informs him that she will tell his mother. She realizes that this is a hot button for Billy, but she uses it anyway because she is disappointed with him. When Billy is later found dead after he has committed suicide, it can be said that McMurphy is the protagonist even though he is trying to strangle Ratched. It is the same as Dorothy exterminating the witch in "The Wizard of Oz" with the water. The witch, Ratched, is being exterminated for her noticeably evil act by the hero, McMurphy. This type of constant reversal of role, and the complex subject matter would have been too great a risk for a major motion picture studio. But, it seems that has changed, at least to some extent, these days.
Recent indie films such as "American History X" and "American Beauty" are the legacy of what some lists call the greatest indie film of all time. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" also rode on the backs of other indie giants such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Psycho." As a matter of fact, it seems that most of the movies that Jack Nicholson has done (such as "Easy Rider," "The Shining," and "The Witches of Eastwick") have followed this same indie pattern. Many of his movies have been filmed and funded by large studios, but there always seems to be an edge to what he does. Possibly because there is a decided edge to the person himself. The fact that indie films…