Scene Analysis: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

This is a slightly edited version of the analysis previously published on

Mister McMurphy, this ward is a democratic community run by the patients and their votes, so you should feel at ease in your new surroundings to the extent you can freely discuss emotional problems in front of the patients and staff. However, the cardinal rule, and I must emphasize this: Everyone keeps their seat during the meeting!
– Miss Ratched

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

The screenplay was written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey. Hauben and Goldman won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, the Writers Guild Award, and were nominated for a BAFTA Film Award for their work.

This is a beat by beat analysis of a group meeting scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, using Frank Daniel’s method of 8 sequences. I’ll be looking at hierarchy between the characters and how McMurphy tries to bring change into the rigid system of the psychiatric ward.

Summary of the scene: Miss Ratched conducts a group meeting when McMurphy wants to have a vote on creating a new game room and changing the next day’s schedule in order to watch the World Series. This is not McMurphy’s first meeting, so he is familiar with the rules. Miss Rached agrees to have a vote. The first vote is successful and McMurphy gets his way (although with a trial period) but the vote on watching the ballgame is lost. The scene echoes the themes depicted in the film as a whole as McMurphy tries to challenge and change the system but success is unlikely.

On hierarchy

McMurphy is in a mental hospital trying to avoid prison. By this point in the film he has not yet realised what he is up against – the rigid system, the nature of authority, and where his place is in that system. Throughout the film, as McMurphy learns about the rules and restrictions, he keeps testing the boundaries and trying to bring change into it according to his own needs and desires.

The main conflict in the story takes place between the system and an individual and the whole plot is composed around hierarchy: like in the story as a whole, in each individual scene there’s some sort of hierarchy between the characters from which the conflict stems. Most film have some sort of hierarchy in the character relations but it’s expressed with particular clarity in this one as the issue of hierarchy is closely linked to the main theme of the story. If McMurphy wouldn’t have to face opposition from someone ‘higher’, someone who wants to remain in control, there would be no story.

In the ward, Big Nurse or Miss Ratched is the one in control and before McMurphy’s arrival her authority has not been challenged. Not by staff, not by patients. She is not a bad-intentioned villain, she is just doing her job. McMurphy is an outsider who enters a world alien to him; he upsets the natural balance of the psychiatric ward by bringing his own will and desire for freedom into the equation, trying to change it to match his lifestyle. From this perspective, McMurphy is actually the villain – he’s a criminal who wants to cheat his way out of a conviction and disrupts the natural order of the hospital. The way the films is set up, and the start of the film – exposition – and point of view are key here, we are made to empathise with the man who wants to be released and condemn the system that is oppressive to him (thus the story becomes an allegory for an oppressive political regime).

In order to get want he wants (freedom), McMurphy’s goal is not to throw Miss Ratched off the top of the hierarchy but to simply have his own way. It doesn’t matter who’s in control, McMurphy wouldn’t be satisfied with just removing them, what he wants is to get our. The other characters – the patients and the staff – are not challenging the hierarchy but take sides with either Big Nurse or McMurphy, with the patients remaining in lower ranks throughout (they either have no will to rebel in the name of individualism or had joined the system voluntarily). Big Nurse and McMurphy both feel they have a right to fight for what they want: McMurphy has a right to have a free will and Miss Ratched has a right to protect the status quo of the ward. This makes the dramatic conflict more intense for the viewer because there’s a dilemma: both are right.

…the writer adds drama through having character’s assumptions turn into disappointments, thus increasing the impact of a new obstacle when it emerges.

McMurphy’s rebellion has a natural development throughout the story: first, as he is brought in, he is oblivious of the system (the writer adds drama through having character’s assumptions turn into disappointments, thus increasing the impact of a new obstacle when it emerges): McMurphy knows it’s a closed institution but doesn’t know about the strict routine and the tools for implementing the rules (pills, shots, Electro-Shock Therapy), and he thinks this is his escape from prison.  He then becomes acquainted with the system as he’s taken through the daily routines and he and the audience can see how the system works. When McMurphy first tries to change something he fails because he has no supporters and the routine is so deep-seated he’s powerless. Bit by bit he wins the other patients to his side and manages several small wins that culminate with an escape and a boat trip – McMurphy has broken out of the system but it’s a false resolution because everyone goes back to the hospital and the routine continues more firmly than before. The more he rebels, the higher the stakes get, the more impossible the obstacles, until he causes his own irreversible demise not only as a patient but as a human being.

The scene analysed takes place just as McMurphy is beginning to realise where he is and just before he learns how long he will have to stay there. It’s the second group meeting scene in the script and by comparing it to the first one we can see how the plot has been organised. The first group meeting scene sets up the rules: everyone must obey or there will be consequences, no one is allowed to leave their seat and the whole process is tightly controlled by Miss Ratched who claims it’s a democratic ward. The scene at hand is about the attempt to change the rules. McMurphy wants to have a vote – to change the schedule, so that they can watch baseball. McMurphy doesn’t attack the system but plays by the book which contributes to his character: he’s clever and tries to use the rules to his own benefit. In the previous group meeting scene he was told that the ward is democratic and change can only happen when the patients vote on it, so that’s what he does in order to get what he wants. (Note: this scene is handled differently in the film, and we’ll look at how it has benefited from the changes later).
The dramatic question of the scene is: will McMurphy bring about change, or more precisely: will McMurphy have the schedule changed for the ballgame? (The latter is more obvious in the film version of the scene.) His antagonist is Miss Ratched whose job it is to keep order in the ward and have everyone follow the rules to the letter. Notice how every time McMurphy manages to have a little bit of success Miss Ratched’s conditions still apply.

The Scene Breakdown

The scene is divided into 8 sequences and beats (this scene happens to have 16 beats). A beat consists of an intention and a reaction, a change in the status quo starts a new beat. I.e. if everyone would be agreeing with Miss Ratched, or McMurphy wouldn’t interrupt and keep insisting, the scene wouldn’t have beats and no dramatic development.

I The Routine

  • A group meeting is in progress but Cheswick is not sitting. Big Nurse tells him to sit. Cheswick refuses.
    Comment: We know from the earlier group meeting scene that everyone has to sit and take part or they will be ‘handled’ by nurses.
  • Cheswick demands to have his cigarettes and looks to Mack (McMurphy) for help. McMurphy doesn’t respond.
    Comment: Every man for himself. Cheswick is not as strong as McMurphy and can’t persuade the authority figures by himself. The problem is also too trivial for McMurphy to step in. Cheswick doesn’t have what it takes to fight the system and Big Nurse stays at the top of hierarchy.
  • a) Big Nurse tells Cheswick to sit down. Cheswick sits.
    b) Big Nurse tells him he should’ve thought of that before he gambled the cigarettes away. Cheswick sulks.
    c) Big Nurse wants to know if Cheswick understands. He does.
    Comment: Cheswick does everything he’s told and agrees with everything that Big Nurse says. Big Nurse makes Cheswick feel guilty, responsible for his own problem and Cheswick’s silence means he agrees or is powerless to argue.  As in the earlier group meeting scene, Cheswick is shown his place by Big Nurse just as Bancini was at the end of the scene (Bancini became distressed and received a shot from the nurses to calm him down).  The audience and the characters know that there will be consequences if someone breaks the rules. So Cheswick obeys without making a big fuss.

II Confrontation

  • Big Nurse starts talking about Mr. Harding’s problem with his wife to continue the discussion from the previous meeting. McMurphy puts his hand up and asks permission to get something off his chest. Big Nurse gives him permission.
    Comment: turning point as McMurphy won’t let Miss Ratched get back to the meeting. After the introduction it will become clear that the scene is between McMurphy and Big Nurse. The dramatic question will be raised during this part of the scene.
  • a) McMurphy reminds Big Nurse of the democratic “something” that was mentioned earlier and wants to get something off his chest. Big Nurse gives him permission.
    b) McMurphy gets out a paper (he’s prepared). He first says it would be wonderful if the music was turned up louder. Dr. Spivey nods, Big Nurse remains stoic, and some patients are bewildered.
    Comment: Big Nurse is the only person who doesn’t respond. It is part of her character to be calculating, patient and in control at all times. McMurphy is playing with Big Nurse – he’s being very polite which is not like him, so it’s just a way of approaching the authority figures in order to persuade them.
  • McMurphy then says the music is already too loud for having a conversation. The patients agree. Big Nurse waits.
  • McMurphy proposes a solution – to have a new separate game room for the ‘young fellows’. Dr. Spivey agrees.
    Comment: the dramatic question of the scene has been raised – will McMurphy change the routine?

III Rising action

  • Dr. Spivey asks Big Nurse what she thinks. Big Nurse asks whether there are personnel for a second day room. Dr. Spivey thinks it can be managed.
  • Dr. Spivey asks the patients what they think. They agree. Big Nurse agrees but only with a trial period.
    Comment: There’s a difference between when Big Nurse asks the patients’ opinion and when Dr. Spivey does so. Miss Ratched’s questions seem intimidating, forcing the patients talk about things that are difficult or they don’t want to talk about. When Dr. Spivey asks their opinion, it’s about something that they want. Dr. Spivey seems to come down to the same level with the patients whereas Miss Ratched always looks down upon them. She’s in charge and nothing will change just because it will make someone happy.
    These beats lead McMurphy closer to what he wants. His proposition goes through (almost) and his reach for the top of the hierarchy is only undermined by Miss Ratched’s agreement to a trial period. She is still in control.
  • Big Nurse takes the conversation back to Mr. Harding’s problem when McMurphy raises his hand again – he’s not finished.
    Comment: Another turning point as McMurphy won’t let Miss Ratched get back to the group discussion. McMurphy’s interruptions begin to look like a passive-aggressive attack.
  • McMurphy suggests a vote to shift the next day’s meeting to a later time, so that they could watch the World Series on TV. Big Nurse disagrees – the daily routine can’t be changed.
    Comment: McMurphy takes his demands further. The first request was a break-through, now he wants more. This is met by an absolute refusal by Big Nurse. She doesn’t want to let him causes any more changes. This is the midpoint of the scene.

IV Falling Action

  • McMurphy doesn’t care about the schedule, they can go back to it right after the game has finished; he wants a vote. Cheswick supports him. Big Nurse agrees.
    Comment: Falling Action implies that the obstacles get bigger than the character can handle. McMurphy stands his ground. As a little turning point the Big Nurse seems to give in by agreeing to have a vote. But it seems too easy and it feels like there’s something behind her reason to agree (which we’ll see in a minute).
  • They vote. Only two hands go up. Big Nurse points out that that’s not enough to change the ward policy.
    Comment: McMurphy has failed. Despite having his way and having a vote, he’s still powerless because he doesn’t have support from other patients.

one flew JN

V Climax

  • Big Nurse asks McMurphy whether there’s anything else he wants to discuss. He says no.
    Comment: Big Nurse wants to seem generous by trying to appear concerned and helpful. McMurphy has lost and he’s given in. The character decides to take no further action and therefore the resolution for McMurphy in this scene is that he’s accepted Miss Ratched’s control (this is where the scene in the film changes direction.)VI Resolution
  • Big Nurse wants to go back to Mr. Harding’s problem and asks if anyone wants to begin. No one does.
    Comment: During the whole scene, the main event is having a group meeting and discussing Mr. Harding’s problem. The constants interruptions have helped to create tension as one character wants to do something but the action is continuously put back. Now that Miss Ratched finally gets to proceed, she is ignored by patients.
  • Mr. Harding starts talking about his problem, going into an incoherent monologue about the function of the relationship and his existence. Martini interrupts with a question about buying hotels (from the game of Monopoly earlier).
    Comment: Mr. Harding shares his problem with the group. The complete indifference by the group is illustrated by the one question asked which has nothing to do with him. The status quo of the ward has not been changed.

Script vs. Film

It appears the scene has been rewritten before the film went into production. The vote for the separate game room is left out and they go right to the problem of watching the game. The character of Dr. Spivey who seems to disappear in the scene  is left out altogether. McMurphy is taken very close to his objective by giving him nearly half the votes – they have a tie. This creates tension as at first he has to urge others in the group to raise their hand and he (and the audience) believes he’s won, but he hasn’t taken into account the other patients in the ward – and they have a tie. So, instead of having the character near his goal with a different question (will he get the new game room?), the goal applies to the whole scene and the near-win is part of that same goal (to watch the ballgame). Nearly achieving his goal creates tension as well because if it would be hopeless from the start, we’d have nothing to engage with.

McMurphy needs just one more vote and he starts going around the ward to fish for that one decisive vote. There has been a series of reversals as McMurphy experiences near-wins and set-backs. Finally, he goes to Chief Bromden and after a lot of jumping and shouting manages to get him to raise his hand but by that time the meeting has adjourned – another reversal brings the confrontation to an end and McMurphy seems to have lost (the ‘false resolution’). He then goes to sit in front of the TV set and suddenly starts yelling at it like there’s a game on. Other patients are first confused but then join in. This is a more active resolution to the scene and illustrates a development in McMurphy’s attitude – he hasn’t given in.  So despite not getting the permission to watch the ballgame, his actions expresses a kind of imaginary victory over Miss Ratched, which also echoes the end of the film where McMurphy has failed but his goal is achieved through an alternative, indirect solution.

In the scene in this version of the screenplay, McMurphy gives up too easily and he’s not even part of the resolution of the scene, and Miss Ratched’s tight grip of power remains unaltered. In order for the plot to develop further, the main character needs to have a series of wins and set-backs during the events that lead to more substantial success or complete failure; otherwise the story is standing still.


Analysing the scene beat by beat shows how characters’ opposing goals (they all want something, and they can’t get it), and the attempt to achieve their goals step by step creates conflict and drama. Also, what they want in the scene is closely linked with their goal in the story, making this event another steppingstone towards the main goal.



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