Appyling Syd Field’s narrative theory to ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’…

Posted: October 21, 2010 in Media

In class we learnt about Syd Field and his theories about the narrative structure within films.

His theory was that there were three clear and basic steps to a film:

Act One- The Setup

Field claimed this was probably the most important act, as within the first five minutes it is assumed that audiences will be able to tell if they will enjoy a film or not and whether they will continue watching it at all. Therefore Field argued that this act was vital for any filmmaker to get right, as it makes sure the audience’s interest is captured. Mostly, they should usually introduce the following things:

The themes of the film itself,

The main character/protagonist of the film,

Why the audience should care about the main character/protagonist,

What they can expect in terms of style,

The nature of the problem affecting the main character/protagonist.

Act Two- The Confrontation

The longest act of the film, this is basically the part of the film where the protagonist struggles as he/she encounters more and more problems, a lot of them initially created by their enemies (or villains of the film). They will deal with these problems quite helplessly to begin with, but later on may begin to turn things around a little, which is mostly due to protagonists’ realising they have being going about things the wrong way and must try a different route/technique in order to prepare for…

Act Three- The Resolution

The protagonist takes control of their struggles/problems, often by confronting their enemies, and achieves a final and decisive victory.

Right, now to continue with my chosen ‘thriller’ genre I have chosen to apply Syd Field’s theory of narrative to ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (promotional poster above)- a brilliant psychological thriller/drama starring Jack Nicholson as R.P McMurphy- a prisoner who is transferred to a mental institution and attempts to try and improve how he and the other patients are treated by the controlling and vindictive nurse Ratched. 

Act One- The Setup

So, right from the very first shots of the film it is clearly established that it will be set in a mental institution- as we are introduced to various characters such as Nurses Ratched and Pillbow, who are seen going about what seems like their daily business. Apart from their costume, their occupation is clear as they are seen doing various things such as handing out medication to patients.

And it clear to the audience that the film will deal with the theme of madness, as the way the patients in the hospital act appear strange and abnormal, ensuring the audience also that the film will be mainly set in a mental institution.

A little later on, our protagonist McMurphy is introduced to the audience. In a short space of time the audience are quickly introduced to his personality and the nature of his problem.

For example, when his handcuffs are taken from him he whoops and cheers and even kisses a male guard on the cheek quite violently. This makes the audience interested in him, as he seems unpredictable and rowdy- but perhaps not very ‘insane’ which will lead them to ask whether he is putting on an act and how he will cope living in the institution. Which will make them want to watch on.

And to set up the film even more, a selection of important character are introduced to the audience, such as Billy, Cheswick, Harding, Martini, and the Chief. Being at the institution already, the audience presume they are all insane and wonder how their mental problems will affect the story and how their relationship with McMurphy may evolve.

And like the audience, when most of the characters meet McMurphy they are intrigued to say the least. And this makes the audience wonder what relationship they may have with our protagonist and how this will develop throughout the film.

And then there is the Doctors interview with McMurphy- which makes the audience learn more about the character and why we should care about him enough to want to watch on. We learn an array of things about his personal life, but the most intriguing one is this: The prison who sent him to the mental institution think he was faking madness in order to get out of doing any work- so is he faking it? And if he is, will he get away with?

This is where the audience learn the nature of McMurphy’s problem- he seems to want to stay out of prison by pretending he is clinically insane- but will he able to pull it off? And this is what makes the audience want to watch the rest of the film.

Act Two- The Confrontation

Definitely the longest part of the film, especially for this one as there appears to be A LOT of confrontations throughout the plot of the film involving a lot of different characters.

At first there is a confrontation between two patients- Harding and Taber- which occurs at McMurphy’s first group therapy meeting. Harding begins by discussing his wife, but when Taber interrupts the two start arguing on an extreme and violent scale. And due to their arguments, other patients (especially Cheswick and Bancini) get distressed and input on the confrontation too. This is not so much to do with McMurphy- but is does display how his reactions can show that he really doesn’t belong here and that he is realising it may not be as peaceful or easy as he first presumed it was- so will he go ahead with his plan?

And then there is the problem with the music that constantly plays all day as the men go about their daily routines. As McMurphy attempts to play poker with the other patients, he quickly gets annoyed by their persistence to get his attention and the fact he can hardly hear them over the overbearing and loud music coming from the nurse’s station. Annoyed, he has an outburst at the patients, and then lets himself into the nurse’s station to turn the music down himself. Quite literally he comes into a confrontation with nurse Pillbow, who, obviously scared out of her wits, tells him he’s not allowed in, and nurse Ratched does the same.

Outside McMurphy asks if she could turn the music down so he and the others can hear each other talk. She refuses to his request. Which tells us that perhaps McMurphy is not going to have a good relationship with Ratched- connoting that she could be the villain of the film- but will McMurphy be able to beat her and get what he wants?

At the fact McMurphy wishes to change to schedule so he and the other patients can watch baseball, nurse Ratched seems blatantly say no to the idea. They are only one vote short, and at the last-minute McMurphy gets the Chief to raise his hand, but Ratched still refuses, which, understandably makes McMurphy extremely irritated. Mostly because she is in power and control of him and he can do nothing about it.

But this can be seen as an instance where he tries to ‘fight back’ at the villain, as McMurphy, annoyed by the fact he and the others can’t watch baseball despite the obvious fact they all wanted to and  voted for it, simply pretends he is watching it on the TV. Imagining the whole thing, he gets excited and cheers, like he is really watching it in reality. Astounded by his acting and what fun he appears to be having, all the other patients quickly join in and pretend they can see it too. And this annoys Ratched, telling us that McMurphy has made a little attempt to over power her in a small way, but he’ll have to more than that to beat her…

Oh and then there’s the BIG confrontation which is begun by the fact that McMurphy is annoyed at how none of the other patients told him he was ‘committed’- meaning that he can only leave the institution when Ratched believes he is fit and ready to. Ultimately meaning that he must get his enemy’s approval of  his mental health before he is allowed to actually be free of her. Which gives him a bigger problem- how is he going to do that now that his relationship with her is, to put it politely, not at it’s best?

 Another confrontation comes from McMurphy’s shock at the fact that how practically all the other patients (apart from Taber and the Chief) are there by choice- ‘voluntary’. He can’t believe how all the others can walk out when they please, but don’t, even though they constantly say how they hate the place.

 And then there is the big dispute over cigarettes. Before the scene McMurphy was seen playing poker with the other patients for them, and nurse Ratched explains how she confiscated them so they cannot keep losing them to McMurphy. But Cheswick, being influenced somewhat by McMurphy’s rowdy and outspoken attitude, demands his cigarettes. Ratched blatantly refuses to give them to him. Trying to settle the matter, McMurphy tells Harding to give him one, but Harding won’t and says it’s his last one. To annoy Harding and punish his selfishness, Martini steals Harding’s cigarette and everyone throws it to one another, taking a puff while they do so and this makes matters even more hectic.

But to make the confrontation even worse, Harding’s lit cigarette lands in Taber’s rolled up cuffs of his trousers. The audience can see  it as it burns through the material and burns his skin, causing him to jump and scream at the unpredicted pain he is experiencing. In agony and shock, the guards drag take him away because they think he is just causing unwanted havoc- and they don’t know he has just hurt himself and is simply reacting to it. This provokes sympathy in the audience and the characters, especially McMurphy as he looks on confused as to why Taber seems to be crying in pain, maybe wondering what he has let himself in for and now he is eventually beginning to see how badly these men are treated in the institution.

To make things even worse, as Taber screams, Cheswick swears at Ratched ‘P*SS ON YOUR F*CKING RULES NURSE RATCHED!!!!‘, and screams like a child, demanding his cigarettes over and over again. It’s a valuable point in the film as this is the first time in which any character other than McMurphy has shown any type of anger or retaliation towards nurse Ratched and this represents how McMurphy is trying to fight back against his enemies, although his actions are somewhat revealing themselves through other characters he has influenced.

At the end of his tether, McMurphy smashes nurse’s station window, brutally hurting his arm in the process, to get Cheswick his cigarettes and calm him down. But the guards have already begun to drag him away despite that now Cheswick has what he wants, he will probably calm down. Annoyed at how they are not giving Cheswick a chance to calm down, McMurphy attempts to fight off the men. The chief gets involved also, helping McMurphy and a very big fight breaks out. Literally showing how McMurphy is fighting back against his enemy- he doesn’t think how they treat the other patients and himself is right, so he retaliates, but they seem to overpower him…

Due to his attempts of fighting back against his enemies, McMurphy encounters a very problem which comes in the form of ECT- Electroconvulsive Therapy. Like a punishment due to his rowdy behaviour and constant battles with the villain, nurse Ratched, McMurphy has come across a bigger problem- that if he tries to fight back in the future he may get horrible punishments such as ECT or worse, to which Ratched has the power to do. So will he continue with his fight against Ratched? Or give up now he has realised just what torment she can put him through?

Almsot toward the end of the film it seems McMurphy has given up- he knows what Ratched has the power to do to him and has decided to escape. But before he goes he and the others create mayhem, having a large ‘leaving party’ for him with McMurphy’s two female friends and alcohol they bring with them.

But the aftermath is much worse than the havoc they create. In the morning McMurphy awakes to realise his escape plan has not gone well- and he has overslept and forgotten the overall ‘escape’. So he is faced with the problem of how Ratched will react to what he and the others have done and what punishment may occur afterwards- will he find a way to escape in the end?

But Ratched’s overall conflict is with Billy Bibbitt- who has slept with one of the women McMurphy brought with him. Ratched attacks him, threatening that she tell his mother (as they are old friends) and that his mother will be ashamed of him. Billy also points the blame on McMurphy for what happened to some extent, which leaves us wondering how Ratched will react to how McMurphy has, again, acted through someone else and influenced their behaviour so as to match his own. 

But in shame of what he did and fear of how his mother will react, Billy kills himself. And although it is clear that it is her fault, not McMurphy’s, she seems to pin the blame on McMurphy’s reckless behaviour. This gives McMurphy perhaps his biggest problem- what does he do? Stay and try to get back at her for what she did to Billy? or go while he has the chance?

Act Three- The Resolution

And I think this is when the resolution comes- It is triggered by the hate in McMurphy eyes as he finally snaps. His ideas of finally escaping from his enemy’s clutches melt away as he glares at Ratched and finally confronts her face to face, his fury and action towards her in no way influenced by the fact she has the power to do whatever she pleases to him. He no longer cares.

He tries to choke nurse Ratched to death. All his pent-up anger towards her (which was only bottled up because of her status and power over him and the other patients that she abuses) is let out all at once, and although he doesn’t actually kill her (which is a shame…) his actions speak louder than anything could have done to the audience and to the patients aswell. Finally someone has actually confronted her, attacked her, and McMurphy has succeeded in showing the others that she is just a person- and they should not be frightened of her, nor let her control them like she so rigidly use to, anymore. 

 I also think this is a resolution as after this the patients delight in thinking McMurphy escaped somehow when they tried to restrain him- their rumours seem to display the fact that McMurphy has succeeded in changing the patients’ attitude toward Ratched/their treatment even if his attempt to perhaps to destroy her physically didn’t succeed. (Because he destroyed her emotionally instead…)


In reality, McMurphy did not escape from the institution after all, and has had a lobotomy and is brought back to the ward because of his attack on nurse Ratched. This the only thing I think stops the resolution of the film from being ‘proper’ resolution that we’d expect.

But there is a glimmer of hope, as the chief recognizes that the McMurphy, the man who taught them not to fear the villain, is gone. But his determination and strength live on through the chief, as he kills McMurphy by smothering him with a pillow. This can appear ot a resolution as it is better for McMurphy to die than live on without his unique spirit and soul inside him.

So, acting by what McMurphy taught him, the chief smashes the window and escapes. Spotting him as he runs off into the distance  Taber yells and whoops, filled with joy at his escape. This leaves the audience feeling happy that although McMurphy is dead- there is a final resolution that Ratched does not win, as McMurphy’s morals and values live on through the patients he influenced throughout the film.


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