Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Chief's Escape from the Cuckoo's Nest


      Arguably, one of the most iconic scenes in American cinema history is the ending of Milos Foreman's 1975 film adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) in which Chief Bromden rips the pump room control panel out of the floor and throws it through a window before running off into the sunset. Aside from the classic hero-riding-off-into-the-sunset imagery, the scene offers a portrait of long-awaited, victorious escape.

     The significance of this final scene is different for viewers of the film versus readers of the novel. The film is told from an objective, third-person point of view, with Jack Nicholson's charismatic R. P. McMurphy as the undeniable focal point. However, the novel is told from the unreliable first-person perspective of a drug-numbed, electroschock-scrambled Chief, and the reader goes along with him as he emerges from the "fog" and, in many ways, comes back to life, a transformation initiated and sponsored by the arrival and tenure of McMurphy at the ward. We, the readers, are with Chief when he finally decides to speak for the first time, and it is exhilarating. We hear all of his thoughts about his compatriots in captivity, and we get to know a lot more about his heritage, family, and childhood than we ever get from the film. When he finally makes his escape, it is the culmination of a character evolution we have been witnessing since page one.

     Because the film focuses on McMurphy's journey so exclusively - to such an extent that viewers familiar with only the film are often shocked to discover that Chief is, in fact, the protagonist of the novel - the final
scene of Chief's escape lacks a certain punch. Sure, we're happy about it, and it's cool that he's getting out, but his escape is, honestly, still all about McMurphy. Escaping had been McMurphy's plan, as was the notion to rip out the control panel to throw through a window. Since McMurphy is apparently defeated by Nurse Ratched when she has him lobotomized, he never gets the kind of escape he had in mind. Chief gives him another kind of escape when he smothers him with a pillow before honoring him by using his plan to get out. This transition of focus from McMurphy to Chief in the final scene of the film is, in my opinion, a lackluster climax which leaves some viewers who are unfamiliar with the novel scratching their heads, wondering why so much attention and gravitas are dedicated in the end to a character who has been marginal at best throughout the film. The answer is that, in the film, the final escape belongs to McMurphy, with Chief acting as a sort of avatar carrying out the plan McMurphy is no longer able to achieve, in his honor.

          Both versions of the story are about, among other things, captivity, which is often self-imposed, and the victorious emergence from it. In the novel, the escape belongs to Chief and is what the book has been steadily and increasingly working toward. In the film, the only way to view the escape so that it is not tonally incongruous is that it is Chief's tribute to McMurphy. But ultimately, he gets away both times, so maybe that's all that matters.

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