Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Movies I Like: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Sometimes I feel very lucky to have grown up in the ’70s wanting to be a filmmaker. It was an amazing time in film. It also set me up for quite a fall because they just don’t make as many good films as they once did. There were so many classics made then that it was normal to see not just good films, but exceptional films. One of those films was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, released in 1975.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a film about a prisoner, Randle Patrick McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, who has been transferred to a mental hospital to be evaluated for mental illness. While there he meets his nemesis, a strict nurse named Mildred Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher, who makes his life very complicated.

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is what I call an Angel From The Sky story.

First, let me tell you, I’m not big on the idea of genre. The way genres have been defined seems to be mostly about costumes and time periods rather than anything of substance.

A Western could be a love story, or a buddy story, or a heist story, or a father and son story; it could be a drama or a comedy, an action story or a coming of age story.  It could be anything. So how does one define a Western other than the clothes people wear?

I think this is true of all genres—they can be any kind of story.

But it can help us to organize when we put things into some kind of category. I like to find categories that help me navigate the construction of a story rather than tell me what they look like. So, here are genres that work for me. Maybe they can help some of you. Angel from the Sky is how I categorize One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Angel from the Sky stories take place in places of despair. They are sad places often without hope. It is into this world that the “Angel” enters. With him/her they bring hope, joy and often love. They often give people another state of mind—a new way to look at the world. When this is done, and the lesson is learned, the “Angel” goes away again. Sometimes that may even mean that they die.

These stories often have a magical or spiritual quality, and the stories have a special place in our hearts. Sometimes the characters may even be endowed with healing powers and other magical traits. Or they may have an almost supernatural ability to see hope where others see only pain.

E.T. is an angel from the sky. Elliot is missing his father and there is some sadness in his house. Elliot is also a child who does not know how to empathize with others. E.T. comes in, brings joy and love, and teaches Elliot to feel for others. When the lesson is learned, he leaves. E.T. heals Elliot’s cut finger, has the ability to fly and levitate objects, and has a magical link with Eliot that is so strong that when E.T. gets drunk so does Elliot. It is through of this connection that E.T. is able infect Elliot with empathy.

In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne comes in to a prison—a place without joy, beauty, or hope—and teaches others to find these things. Andy does things like play opera over the prison loudspeakers and brings beauty to a place with little of it. 

And he does something to allow him to give get a couple of beers for his fellow inmates so that for, if only for a few minutes, they feel free. He gives hope to the hopeless and then he leaves. But the people left behind are changed.

The classic Cool Hand Luke is a story that also takes place in a prison setting—but more of a prison camp. Luke is a character who will not let himself be broken by the harsh treatment of the prison overseer and guards. Luke keeps running away. He is captured and punished harshly each time, but he refuses to be broken and becomes a hero to the other inmates. These “angels” are often not treated well by the power structure or by the society at large.

The Green Mile is another story with a character who brings love to a prison’s death row—a place of ultimate despair.

These kinds of stories, when told well, have enormous power. They can move people deeply.

And I mean no disrespect when I say this, but the story of Jesus is probably the most famous of these types of stories. Whatever you personally believe, you cannot deny that the story has moved many people deeply. I do not mean to say that Cuckoo’s Nest’s McMurphy is a Jesus figure, only that the story pattern is the same.

McMurphy enters the world of the mental hospital—a place without joy—and brings joy and teaches others to find it. He frees them from their mental prisons. He teaches them how to live.

The film is moving, hopeful and full of love all without being overly sentimental or sappy. Sit down and watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s so good it’s crazy.


imyjimmy said...


The Movies I Like series is great. I'm now known to my folks as having a good taste in movies because I often bring home movies you recommend. So, thanks for that.

I'm gonna keep my eyes open for real examples of angels from the sky too.

James said...

This might sound a bit of a stretch but hear me out. What about Casablanca, with Viktor Laszlo as the Angel?

You could try to argue that Rick is the Angel in that it is the dormant love he has for Ilsa which ‘saves the day’ when it reawakens. But that only happens because she walks into his gin joint. And that only happens because an enemy of the Reich has come to Casablanca – Viktor Laszlo.

Laszlo is clearly the ‘angelic’ character and it is his coming to Casablanca which really fires all the character arcs into motion. And then, when he has weaved his magic on Rick, and everybody who comes to Rick’s...he leaves.

It's a rather amusing thought, given that Laszlo is often considered something of a 'cold-fish,' but, in this structural sense, I see a fair argument that he is an 'angel.'

Anonymous said...

To chime in, I've been getting the same good reputation on my movie choices, thanks to your recommendations, Brian.

My husband, who's an engineer, is really enjoying learning to peel apart the workings of good filmmaking as we watch these movies together and search for the good writing that you point out.

Thank you! We're going to watch this movie.

I'm curious, what did you mean when you said that growing up in the 70s almost set you up for quite a fall?

Jamie Baker said...

Oh boy. This has to be one of my all-time favourite movies. I don't actually own many DVDs but this is one that I do possess and watch all the time. I like everything about this. The soundtrack is great (and I have never been able to find it in any store).

I liked this movie so much that I tracked down the book it is based on and there are some surprising differences though the spirit is much the same. I like them both.

Jamie Baker said...

You mentioned SHAWSHANK... did you see this post about DARABONT's script for INDY 4:


Brian McD said...

Hey Elise,

Glad you are finding my film recommendations entertaining as well as informative.

What mean about growing up in the 70s almost set me up for quite a fall is that after the early 80s there was a sharp drop in the quality of films. It was in the 80s that the marketing people were put in charge of the movie business.

People who grew up during the 80s or later have a hard time with this concept. I just wrote an email to a friend about this and I can say here what I said to him:

I just feel like the bar is very low nowadays. I have loved film all of my life and was around when some of the best came out. I didn't see all of them at the time because I was too young, but the way people talked about movies was much different. People used to REALLY like them. I never heard anyone say, "I'd be interested to know what you thought about Rocky." No they said, "Rocky is so good! You gotta see Rocky!" That was true of The Godfather, Planet of the Apes, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, E.T., Jaws, Star Wars, Kramer vs. Kramer, Marathon Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paper Moon and whatever else. Not only did people like films with more raw enthusiasm those films made their way into the culture to such a degree that it is almost impossible to imagine that they hadn't been there before. This was not something that happened over time, but it happened almost immediately. To this day you can get in the water with someone and hum the Jaws theme and they will know what you mean. You can say, "use the force" and people will know what you mean. You can put on a hat and hum the Raiders theme and people will get the reference. You can run up a staircase and sing "getting strong now!" and many people will recognize the Rocky anthem.

These things all had an impact on the culture and no one had to convince anyone else of their merit. It's different now. A few years ago people were going off about Syriana and I said that in a couple of years no one would talk about it again because it wasn't that good. People laughed at me. But who ever talks about Syriana. It wasn't good. Even people who liked it basically said it wasn't good because they said they didn't know what was going on.

We live in a time when a filmmaker isn’t even expected to communicate clearly. As far as I’m concerned that is the minimum requirement.

I have seen this phenomenon a lot over the last few decades. People will tell me something is great, I will see it and not like it, people tell me I'm too harsh and in a year or two no one ever talks about the film again.

Ever since Barry Diller ruined films in the 80s the bar has been lowered to the point where people can't even imagine a great film. But I remember people leaving the theaters really charged up -- they had seen something. The entire audience would come out excited, talking about what they had just seen with unchecked enthusiasm. Now when I walk out of a film most of the time people file out quietly. They might say, "That wasn't bad". Or they might even go as far as to say that it was good. But not with the glee people used to show.


Brian McD said...

Hey Jamie,

It is such a great film. I have never read the book -- maybe I should.

And thanks for the link about Indy 4.

imyjimmy said...


So it's a bad time for films, but what about the what the film climate might be trending towards? People want good films. Especially right now when times are tough. And if supply can't meet demand, the marketing people would just leave. What I mean is, they should leave.

People are finally getting the sense that maybe something is wrong with Hollywood. Hollywood is getting the sense that they need to change too. Harrison Ford sees the decline in Hollywood movies A lot of Hollywood actresses want films with strong leading women, like Norma Rae. But none are being written, or they're being stomped out.

The King's Speech won Best Picture, isn't that a silver lining?

Also, the cost of film making has been greatly reduced. So if you have a good idea you should be able to film it and put it on Vimeo for the world to see. Assuming that Vimeo doesn't turn into Youtube.

Also, NFFTY 2011 is coming around, there has to be at least one hard working young film maker in there.

And if enough Harrison Ford's come together, there might just be a Renaissance for film.

Being optimistic here,


Jamie Baker said...

I guess the DARABONT script was deleted at that PRIOR link. here is is:


Helgeson said...

Hello Mr.Mcdonald. After finding my way here, via a link from onanimation.com, I´ve spent time during the past three weeks reading through all of your posts. I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your experiences, thoughts and advice.

I´m amazed at the clarity with which you communicate your thoughts, and the seeming simplicity with which you explain difficult subjects and ideas.

You have written so much gold, and I´ve filled many pages in my sketchbook with quotes from your posts.
"Is this your card? Not much of a trick"
"I just try to tell a story and tell it well"
On armature "It is what you want to say with your piece".
"A great story has a focus-a direction. It knows what it´s about- what it´s trying to say".

These quotes, and many others hold teachings I shall carry with me and put to practice in my job as an illustrator, and will remain in my thoughts for the rest of my career.

You have helped me, in a profound way, in becoming a better storyteller. Thank you.

I look forward to returning here to read and learn more.

/Kind Regards.

Brian McD said...

Hello Johannes,

Thanks for the kind words. I'm happy to hear that the blog has helped you so much.

Thanks so much for taking the time to write to tell me your feelings about the blog.

And I do hope that some of the things stick with you and help you with your career. The world needs good storytellers.

-- Brian

Jens said...

Hello Brian,

your blog is without any doubt one of the finest resources on storytelling that I ever found - or, to be honest, I did not find by myself, but was taken here by some of your readers that recommended "Invisible Ink" on Quora.

I have read every single line - and would like to thank you for every single line! Not only have I learned a lot - I was also reminded of a lot of things that I learned years before but was not aware of anymore. So thank you also for reminding me.

I had to especially react on this post, because it reminded me of a struggle I used to be in several years ago; it was all about understanding genre.

In 2003, when I attended a storytelling workshop in the UK, our lecturers recommended the work of a guy named Phil Parker, a script doctor and lecturer, too. In 2002, he had published a book called "The Creative Matrix" which comes up with a model on how components of a story are intertwined, and how this model can be helpful for creating screenplays. This Matrix is made up from six corner points: story, theme, genre, style, form and plot.

The absolute highlight of this (I think) fantastic book is the section about genre and style. It brings great clarity on what genre is and what not and also dissects the subject in a very convincing way.

In 2004, I had the chance to attend a workshop held by Parker on his "Creative Matrix" in Germany (where I come from). It was enlightening!

Parker had continued his work on identifying genre … and narrowed them down to four: drama, romance, thriller and horror.

My personal highlight was to find out that according to Parker's genre analysis e.g. Pirates of the Caribbean belongs to the genre of "romance", because it is all about about a man (Jack Sparrow) and his object of desire (the Black Pearl)

I would be curious to hear your opinion on this. Here you get an idea and a first impression of Parker's work:


Thanks again,


Brian McD said...

Hey Jens,

Thanks so much for reading the blog and saying some embarrassingly nice things about it. I am always happy to know that these things I write actually help people.

It sounds like you got a ton from Phil Parker too. All of this stuff is just away of helping people get a handle on complicated ideas. And all teaches will come at this differently.

I would rather not comment on what other teachers do because then it is instantly all over the world. And things get blown out of proportion and people perceive a fight where there is none.

All I will say is that anyone who helps you become a better writer is the right teacher for you.

I will be looking at what Phil Parker says though. Thanks for letting me know about him. I’m always learning myself.

Thanks again for taking the time to write.

-- Brian