There had been an earlier stage version of the book, in 1963, but the film does not use the script of the stage version.
His ward in the mental institution is run by a calm but unyielding tyrant, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who has cowed the patients — most of whom are there by choice, categorized as "voluntary" patients — into dejected submission. While he initially has little respect for his fellow patients, McMurphy's antiauthoritarian nature is aroused. His needling of Nurse Ratched is initially just for kicks, but his sense of injustice at their treatment leads him into a battle for the hearts and minds of the patients. What he finds out only later is that Ratched has the power to keep him there indefinitely. Rather than simply bide her time with McMurphy and have him transferred, Ratched sees his behavior as a personal affront and challenge to her authority and becomes obsessed with winning this contest.
McMurphy gradually forms deep friendships in the ward with a group of men which includes Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a suicidal, stuttering and helpless young man whom Ratched has humiliated and dominated, and "Chief" Bromden (Will Sampson), a 6’ 5” (1.96 m) muscular Native American. Believed by the patients to be deaf and unable to speak, Chief is mostly ignored but also respected for his enormous size. In Billy, McMurphy sees a younger brother figure whom he wants to teach to have fun, while the Chief ultimately becomes his only real confidant, as they both see their struggles against authority in similar terms.
McMurphy initially insults Chief when he enters the ward, but attempts to use his size as an advantage (for example, in playing basketball). Later, they and patient Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) are detained for being involved in a fight with the ward attendants. Cheswick undergoes electroshock therapy, while McMurphy and Chief wait their turn on a bench. While they wait, McMurphy offers Chief a piece of Juicy Fruit gum, and Bromden verbally thanks him. A surprised McMurphy discovers that Chief actually hates the hospital establishment just as he does but handles it in a different way (by remaining mute instead of using Randle's strategy of open defiance). McMurphy hatches a plan that will allow himself and Bromden to escape. Following his "therapy," McMurphy jokingly feigns catatonia before assuring his cohorts and Nurse Ratched that the attempt to subdue him didn't work.
On the night of December 10, 1963, McMurphy sneaks into the nurse's station and calls his girlfriend, Candy, and tells her to bring booze. Another woman tags along and both enter the ward after McMurphy bribes the night watchman, Mr. Turkle (Scatman Crothers). The patients drink while Billy flirts with McMurphy's girlfriend. McMurphy sees that Billy likes Candy and asks her to sleep with Bibbit. While Billy and McMurphy's girlfriend are in a separate room, the rest of the patients, including McMurphy and the Chief who had been planning to escape, pass out from drinking, probably because of the extant neuroleptic drugs (Thorazine, etc.) in their systems.
When Nurse Ratched arrives the next morning she commands the attendants to clean up the patients and conduct a head count. Billy is found in a room sleeping with Candy. Without stuttering at all, he announces that he is not ashamed of what he has done, Nurse Ratched then threatens that she will tell his mother about it. Billy breaks down, his stutter returns, and after being carried into the doctor's office, kills himself by slitting his throat. McMurphy, furious at what Nurse Ratched did to Billy, tries to strangle her. McMurphy is subdued and taken away again.
A few days later, the patients are seen playing cards as usual. Nurse Ratched, her vocal cords damaged by McMurphy's previous attack, is forced to speak through a microphone for the patients to hear her, and finds that she is now no longer able to intimidate them. Later that night, Chief Bromden sees McMurphy being returned to his bed. When the Chief approaches him, he finds to his horror that he has been given a lobotomy. Unwilling to leave McMurphy behind, the Chief waits until night and suffocates his neurologically disabled friend with a pillow. He follows Randle's plan for escape by heroically hoisting a heavy hydrotherapy control panel (which McMurphy had tried to lift earlier) and hurling it through a barred window. He is last seen fleeing the institution to the roaring cheers from the other patients.
The role of domineering Nurse Ratched was turned down by six actresses, Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, and Angela Lansbury, until Louise Fletcher accepted casting only a week before filming began.
|Jack Nicholson||Randle Patrick McMurphy|
|Louise Fletcher||Nurse Mildred "Big Nurse" Ratched|
|William Redfield||Dale Harding|
|Dean R. Brooks||Dr. John Spivey|
|Scatman Crothers||Orderly Turkle|
|William Duell||Jim Sefelt|
|Brad Dourif||Billy Bibbit|
|Christopher Lloyd||Jim Taber|
|Will Sampson||Chief Bromden|
|Nathan George||Attendant Washington|
|Sydney Lassick||Charlie Cheswick|
The film marked the film debuts of Sampson, Dourif and Lloyd. It was one of the first films for DeVito. DeVito and Lloyd co-starred several years later on the television series Taxi.
It loses a bit of the significance it has in the novel, where it is part of a rhyme Chief Bromden remembers from his childhood. This detail was not included in the film, but the line retains its relevance since the story ends with two patients dead from different causes and one who escapes from the hospital.
Today, the film is considered to be one of the greatest American films. Kesey himself claimed to have disliked the movie, a fact revealed by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk in the foreword of the 2007 edition, "The first time I heard this story, it was through the movie starring Jack Nicholson. A movie that Kesey once told me he disliked".
It was nominated for an additional four
It was nominated for