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.