Last Saturday night Kimmie and I finished watching my 1970s Film Festival. We have been watching my catalogue of top films, breaking them down by decade, and within each decade I’ve arranged the movies in alphabetical order (I always look for new ways to order the movies). These are mostly movies we’ve seen before, and which I have rated highly enough to be suitable for reviewing. The movie that was alphabetically last in my 1970s Festival was Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese and released in 1976.
I reviewed Taxi Driver in a post here in May 2012, and gave it a score of 8/10. I gave it the same score this time. Actually, I’m now rating movies out of 100, since there are so many of them, and I gave Taxi Driver 83/100, which still rounds to 8/10. It remains a good, original, and thought-provoking movie, and I will be happy to watch it again, when its turn comes round in my next shuffle of movies.
But now that I’ve finished my 1970s festival, you might be curious to know my pick for the best movie of the 1970s. After watching them all again and rating each one afresh, I discovered that my top pick was One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman from Ken Kesey’s novel, directed by Milos Forman, and starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (and I also reviewed that movie in May 2012). I gave it 95/100, which rounds to 10/10 for my IMDb rating. My next pick was The Godfather, at 93/100, and then Deliverance, at 92/100. Excellent films all, and so different from each other.
This time I found myself reflecting on the genre of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for it is a story of an unusual type. (Spoiler alert for what follows: see the movie first!) McMurphy bucks the system and is eventually defeated by it, but it is not a tragedy in the usual sense, for it is not the case that it is McMurphy’s flaws that drag him to his doom. True, he’s a criminal and a jailbird, but he’s not crazy, and it’s not his criminal tendencies, such as they are, that bring about his doom. No, it is his independence and his refusal to bow meekly to authority that bring the wrath of Nurse Ratched and the institution down on him. We in the audience are rooting for him, for we see that the system that has him in its clutches is a tyrannical one. It wields power without justice or accountability. In a more positive story, McMurphy would somehow prevail. In this one, he doesn’t. The institution has total power over him, and it crushes him.
Christopher Booker, in his book The Seven Basic Plots, makes mention of this genre of story, naming it “rebellion against ‘The One.'” Here’s what he says about it:
The essence of this plot is that it shows us a solitary hero who finds himself being drawn into a state of resentful, mystified opposition to some immense power, which exercises total sway over the world in which he lives. Initially he increasingly feels he is right and that the mysterious power must in some fundamental way be at fault. But suddenly he is confronted by that power in all its awesome omnipotence. The rebellious hero is crushed.
This is a pretty good summary of the plot of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And Booker finds three stories that exemplify this unusual genre:
These three stories are progressively less happy in their outcomes, as the omnipotent power in each case grows darker and darker. And they all go on to end more or less as Booker describes the finish of this plot:
He is forced to recognise that his view had been based only on a very limited, subjective perception of reality. He ends accepting the power’s rightful claim to rule over the world and himself.
This never happens to McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest; he never does acknowledge the right of the power to rule over him. They lobotomize him, but they never get his assent.
So maybe Cuckoo’s Nest is more in the category of the 1995 movie Braveheart, in which William Wallace stands up to the oppressive might of British rule, only to be crushed in the end. Cuckoo’s Nest is darker and less heroic, and it is also ironic, for McMurphy is not a hero but an antihero. But he’s a human being and he wishes, like William Wallace, to live free. And, to the limit of his power, he does. And even in this dark story the flame of freedom is passed on, for McMurphy inspires his fellow inmate, The Chief, to seek freedom and break out.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a wonderful piece of film-making and it fully deserves its newly won honor of Best Movie of the 1970s. Will The Godfather be able to nudge it out of its top spot on my next pass through the festival? Stay tuned.