One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic of American cinema, and Jack Nicholson’s most well-remembered cinematic role. The movie was based on an earlier theatrical production, and upon the the Ken Kesey novel of the same name, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which had been loosely based upon his experiences working as a janitor or orderly in a VA mental hospital in California, where he also volunteered for LSD experiments.
A lesser-known fact is that having been released in 1975, as a cinematic retelling of a story set some 10-20 years earlier, it is an extremely realistic portrayal of what State mental institutions were like until fairly recently, insofar as how the facilities were set up and what the available treatments were.
Nurse Ratched is easily vilified and has become synonymous with representatives of institutionalized cruelty in our age, and McMurphy observes that she likes to “play with a rigged deck”. However, though some of her policies are merely protective of institutional inertia (what can putting the World Series game on the ward’s television hurt?), certain of her actions are an attempt to impose order upon chaos and good habits upon pathology; in many cases, she engaged in such restrictive measures as withholding other patients’ cigarettes in an effort to stem the negative influence upon the other patients on the part of McMurphy, who had started gambling with the other patients and had won much of their existing supply of money and cigarettes. Though the patients possess wishful thinking of winning these items back, if enabled to gamble some more, Ratched holds out no such hopes and is immune to McMurphy’s charisma. She thinks the regimen of the institution, if strictly adhered to, can at least partially “fix” McMurphy and the other patients, but McMurphy’s fellow inmates welcome the excitement and fun McMurphy’s stunts bring into their drab world. In an interview with Dr. Spivey, the chief psychiatrist, Randall Patrick McMurphy admits that the reason he got sent to prison, and subsequently to the mental institution was, “as near as I can figure out, it’s ’cause I, uh, fight and fuck too much”. This movie is as much about the way society deals with such a nonconformist as much as it is about the personal conduct of such an individual himself; as the behind-the-scenes deliberations of the doctors and Nurse Ratched are shown and the workings of the various bureaucracies dealing with McMurphy are put before the audience. The treatment team make the fateful decision to “keep him (McMurphy) on the ward”, rather than exercising the other options available to them of sending McMurphy to another ward with more “disturbed” patients, or, as the head of the hospital wanted, sending him back to the prison work farm, on the grounds that McMurphy wasn’t technically mentally ill, and that therefore he could well be returned to the penal system, rather than remain in the mental health system.

Though the medical and psychiatric knowledge of the time had decided that McMurphy was “not crazy, but he is dangerous”, modern-day audiences view this picture with a different perspective than people did when it was released in the 1970s. These days, folks are likely to ask, upon seeing McMurphy’s provoking manner, if perhaps, he “has ADD”, which, back then, was not considered possible in an adult. Some speculate that he might have been a sociopath. Modern audiences also express shock at what was then a common procedure, and, during the time period referenced by the original book upon which the movie is based, the only game in town, electroshock therapy without anesthesia, which is now banned in the US, being widely considered barbaric and cruel.
At one point when a melee erupts in the ward, and McMurphy and the Chief are among those taken away immediately to get electroshock treatment, ostensibly to calm their agitated, violent states, but actually because it is the prevailing punishment this particular bureaucracy can dispense. While McMurphy and the Chief are sitting on a bench outside the electroshock room, waiting their turn, McMurphy does the chief the small kindness of offering him a stick of gum. Chief thanks McMurphy for the gum, and with surprise, McMurphy notes that the Chief “can talk” and is thus not “deaf and dumb” as he had previously been described by others in the ward. (Chief actually came off more as a catatonic to me). The Chief warns McMurphy about people “working on him” by telling him the tragic story of his own bedevilled and alcoholic father. Nevertheless, McMurphy continues his antics and continues to get himself and others into escalating amounts of trouble.
Though the predominant disability portrayed in this movie is mental illness in various forms and degrees, both by actors and by authentic patients who had roles as “extras”, there is the occasional wheelchair user shown at various times and places in the hospital, and it is not uncommon to see stray manual wheelchairs left unattended, and easily commandeered by the able-bodied. Though the hospital was built well before the ADA became law, and is probably not designed with wheelchair accessibility in mind, the patients’ swimming pool has a concrete ramp on which an older male patient in a wheelchair is gently rolled into the pool, wheelchair and all.
There were no shortage of “acquired disabilties” in the mental institutions of the time: in the past, when electroshock was the predominant form of treatment, and was given in much the same way in real life as it was to Jack Nicholson, it was tacitly acknowledged that some brain damage was part of the deal.
Lobotomies were a common form of treatment in mental institutions in the past, and while dramatic loss of intelligence and personality was not always the direct result of lobotomization, in this movie, an individual who has had a lobotomy is portrayed as a drooling, incontinent zombie, and McMurphy is shown as passive and silent, and no longer “him”, following his lobotomy.

Legend of the Guardians

Based on the popular children’s book series Guardians of Ga’hoole, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole primarily revolves around fledgeling owl Soren, who is carried off by bigger, stronger owls when he falls to the forest floor one day. The owls call themselves the Pure Ones and are ruled by an owl with a facial disfigurement, Metal Beak, who wears an ornate metal helmet and mask to hide his missing beak. (It seems even the owl kingdom can’t escape the Disability Movie Cliche of the villain being hideously deformed to match the ugliness of his soul.)

The Pure Ones have an unusual tactic at their disposal; they mystically reduce their new young captives to a zombielike state using the power of the moon. “Moon blinked” owls appear as if blind from cataracts, and in a catatonic state until their masters order them to work in a mine of sorts; the moon blinked owls peck through regurgitated owl pellets to find flecks of magnetic material that the mice have eaten.

Soren and Eg

Soren, and his moon blinked little sister, Eg.

Soren escapes with the help of an older, disgruntled soldier, and finds his way to a giant hollow tree with new companions. The tree serves as base for the legendary Guardians that Soren’s parents have told stories about, and Soren is questioned by their leaders. One grizzled veteran owl speaks up for Soren, though later his new young friends joke that Ezylryb is “missing a few talons”, as code for not being “all there”.

Soren begins training to become a Guardian himself, and Ezylryb takes him under his wing. The eager young Soren is ready to charge off to battle to rescue his sister, but the wise Ezylryb dissuades him from entering the fray without proper training. “Well, this is what it looks like when you’ve actually fought in battle. Its not glorious, it’s not beautiful. And it’s not even heroic. It’s merely doing what’s right. And doing it again and again, even if someday you look like this.” he says, referring to his missing talons and blind eye.


Wise old owl Ezylryb tells Soren of the folly of rushing off to war.

Soren is dragged into battle anyway, and acquits himself nobly. Metal Beak is defeated, as symbolized by his empty mask. (The audience never actually sees his deformity, and how he’s able to speak intelligibly without a beak is never explained.)

Winter’s Bone

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Winter’s Bone is about 17 year old “Ree” (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who’s living in terrible poverty in the Ozarks, the sole caregiver to her 2 younger siblings who have no apparent disabilties beyond being 6 and 12 years old, and a mother who is non-functioning. In some scenes, the mother seems to be catatonic or otherwise non-responsive, but in a few she is seen doing some simple tasks (i.e., folding a shirt).

It is not made clear to the audience exactly what it is the mother has, how long she’s been this way, or her prospects for recovery. (Possibilities include depression or other mental illnesses, brain injury from drug use, and Multiple Sclerosis.) In one scene, Ree tells someone that her mother has been taking medication, but it’s not been helping. Her father has been missing for two weeks.

While the situation is not easy, Ree is managing things well enough, until a bail bondsman comes to the house and informs her that her father had put up the house as a bond, and if he fails to show on his court date, they are entitled to seize the house. With no alternative income or legal protections, Ree is forced to try to track down her father by asking what seems to be everyone in the immediate community.

Nearly all of them have some distant, unspecified kinship tie to her (that, the squirrel-shooting and skinning scene, and the fact that a number of people own banjos and know how to play them, initially led me to believe that this picture was set in Appalachia. I hadn’t known there was for all practical purposes an Appalachia in Missouri.) but for the most part, they are distinctly unhelpful even though they most likely are aware of her plight. Ree must tell the younger children “Never ask for what should be offered freely.”

At one point, an associate of her father’s takes her to an abandoned, burned-out meth lab and tries to sell the story that her father had died in the explosion. But she’s not buying it. She knows her father is well-known for producing methamphetamine without blowing himself up, and the weeds in that place are waist-high. She assumes her father is living but on the lam, until he misses his court date. Then, foul play becomes the most likely scenario.

Like the mountain people of the Eastern Seaboard, or the mafia in big cities, there is a “code of silence”, an omerta, if you will. The main industry of this area was meth, and because Ree’s father had planned to inform to law enforcement, persons unknown had killed him and hidden the body. Ree is faced with the difficult situation of going against the culture of her community to find out what happened to her father, and prove her father’s death to the law enforcement system. Though Ree’s immediate environment contains few people who can be said to be good role models by conventional standards, as most of the adults she encounters are either producing or using illegal drugs of one sort or another, she says “no” to drugs, though they are frequently offered to her. Perhaps because she’s intelligent enough to see the consequences of the drug trade in the faces and places she sees everyday. Eventually, she finds a way to make a compromise between her conscience, her practical needs, and the community ideal of not “being a rat”.
A scene where Ree has a talk with an Army recruiter, having seen a poster that promised a $40,000 bonus for enlisting, makes it clear that while the money would be the answer to her prayers, mainstream society, with arbitrary barriers and no exceptions, offers her few legal and legitimate ways to solve her financial and sociological problems.