One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Blue’s Beats #12

Blue’s Beats is a new blog series where we break down various nominated feature screenplays by identifying and discussing their important beats.


Today we’ll be taking a look at the 1975 American drama, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman and directed by Miloš Forman. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here


Randle McMurphy, a convict looking to doge a harsh prison sentence, feigns a mental disorder and is transferred to a mental institution. Upon his arrival, he finds that the patients are oppressed by the institution’s abusive supervisor, Nurse Ratched. What follows is a battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched as he tries to inspire his fellow patients to stand up for themselves while she struggles to retain control.


The year is 1963, and Randle McMurphy is transferred to a mental institution for evaluation after feigning mental illness in order to avoid a hard labor sentence. McMurphy meets the other patients housed at the institution and quickly assumes a position of leadership thanks to his charisma and fast-talking charm.


Nurse Ratched quickly cracks down on McMurphy’s rebellious ways, escalating the already palpable tension between the two. In an attempt to rally his new friends against Ratched’s iron hold on the institution, McMurphy demands that they be allowed to watch the Wold Series on television. After his request is rejected, he attempts to escape from the institution by trying to lift a massive hydrotherapy console and then throwing it through a barred window. McMurphy ultimately fails, but turns to the others, exclaiming, “But I tried, goddammit. At least I did that.”


Fed up with Ratched’s dictatorial policies, McMurphy steals a hospital bus and convinces the other patients to join him on an illicit joyride and subsequent deep-sea fishing expedition. Upon their return, Ratched informs McMurphy that she has the power to keep him committed indefinitely. When a fight breaks out between McMurphy and a few of the orderlies, Ratched proscribes painful electroshock therapy in an effort to check his insolence.


With McMurphy’s release date uncertain, he plans to escape from the hospital in earnest. During an impromptu Christmas party involving booze and prescription medication, he very nearly seizes his opportunity to escape along with another patient named Billy Bibbit. However, when Billy says that he isn’t yet ready to leave the hospital, McMurphy suggests that the virginal Billy have sex with a female friend who was able to sneak in through the hospital window to join in the reveling.


When Ratched arrives the next morning and discovers Billy’s sexual escapade, she flies into a rage and tells Billy that she’ll tell his mother what he’s done. Terrified and driven into a frenzied state by Ratched’s threat, Billy locks himself in a doctor’s office and ultimately commits suicide. Unable to cope with Billy’s death, McMurphy blames Ratched and nearly chokes her to death before being knocked out by an orderly. Later, McMurphy reruns to the ward in what appears to be a vegetative state. “Chief” Bromden, a massive Native American patient whom McMurphy had befriended and encouraged, discovers that McMurphy has been lobotomized. Bromden is unwilling to allow the previously vibrant McMurphy to go on living in his brain-dead state and smothers him with a pillow in an act of mercy.


Bromden, inspired by McMurphy’s valiant fight against Ratched’s repressive regime, decides to pick up where McMurphy left off. He rips out the hydrotherapy station, which McMurphy himself tried to lift at the beginning of the story, and tosses it through the window in the same way that McMurphy boasted he would. Bromden hops through the window and is shown running through a field and away from the hospital as he is cheered on by the other patients.