Critical Essays McMurphy's Cinematic Brothers in Rebellion



The character of Randle Patrick McMurphy shares many similarities with other cinematic figures of the past 50 years. A trip to your local video store or library where many of these videos are readily available will serve to elucidate the themes of rebellion against repression found in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. These works are often set in enclosed spaces, such as seagoing vessels and prisons, to present a small microcosm of humanity that contrasts rigid authority with the free-spirited nature of the works' respective protagonists.

Mr. Roberts

McMurphy's rebellious and messianic qualities and subsequent martyrdom resemble the character Mr. Roberts in the stage play and film adaptation of Mr. Roberts. In the film, Roberts (played by Henry Fonda) is assigned to a supply ship during World War II. Roberts longs to see battle in the South Pacific, but his captain (played by James Cagney) refuses to approve his transfer. The captain is a one-dimensional tyrant and is challenged continuously by Roberts.

Much like McMurphy, Roberts also experiences a period where he yields to the authority wielded by a tyrant. When Roberts finally receives his transfer, his rebellious spirit lives on in his replacement, Ensign Pulver (played by Jack Lemmon), who adopts the mantle of crew spokesperson upon hearing of Roberts' heroic death in battle.

Cool Hand Luke

While the similarities between Jesus Christ and Mr. Roberts are subtle, they are far more pronounced in the title character Paul Newman portrays in the film Cool Hand Luke. Sentenced to a chain gang for cutting the tops off a town's parking meters, Luke galvanizes his fellow prisoners by challenging them to join him in his thwarting the abusive authority of the warden (played by Strother Martin).

Much like the fishing excursion in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest served to build the patients' allegiance to McMurphy, the characters in Cool Hand Luke come to revere Luke when he attempts to eat fifty raw eggs to win a bet. This results in the prisoners bonding together to assert their own humanity.

Elsewhere in the film, Luke endures prolonged solitary confinements to a box where he bakes in the hot Southern work farm sun, resembling Jesus Christ's forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert. A consistent visual motif displays Luke against images of a crucifix, especially the crossed roads on which the chain gang labors.

The Shawshank Redemption

Based upon a short story by Stephen King, the film The Shawshank Redemption is also set in a prison. The prisoners learn to reject fear and that "hope can set you free" through the examples set by the inmate Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins). Among other things, Dufresne lobbies for a prison library that enables the prisoners to ennoble themselves with literature, classical music, and opera. In a much more secular vein, however, The Shawshank Redemption allows its protagonist to live after he escapes through ingenuous means.

Fight Club

The 1999 film Fight Club also bears many similarities to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In the film, the characters Jack (played by Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) rail against a society of rampant self-centeredness and consumerism. "Self improvement is masturbation," Durden tells Jack, a character formerly obsessed with the accumulation of designer brand furniture to fill the void of his otherwise meaningless existence.

In an effort to find sincerity and human connection, the healthy and unaddicted Jack attends various support groups and 12-step programs. He agrees with another "faker," a woman named Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter), that people actually listen to other people speak only when they think the speaker is terminally ill.

But these groups serve to weaken men further because they encourage a level of sensitivity that can only be described as feminine. Coincidentally, the group that Jack feels closest to is a collective of testicular cancer patients — men emasculated by disease and the removal of their testicles. The member of the group with the closest connection to Jack is Robert Paulsen (played by Meat Loaf), a former bodybuilder whose cancer was brought on by the use of steroids. Paulsen's treatment, however, has raised his body's estrogen level, causing him to grow breasts.

Durden's perception that contemporary American males have become increasingly more feminized as a result of being "a generation of men raised by women," also hearkens to McMurphy's attacks on "ball-cutters." Instead of marrying, Durden advises Jack to live life to its fullest by participating in rebellious acts, including graphic fights that enable the fighters to regain a semblance of masculinity. The mayhem perpetrated by Durden and his followers, however, quickly escalates into a fascistic, proletarian movement bent upon total societal annihilation.