Authority in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest Essay
On the surface, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seem like two very different films. Loneliness is filmed in black and white and takes place in an English borstal school; Cuckoo’s Nest takes place in an American psychiatric ward and is presented in color. Dig a little deeper, however, and it is clear that these films are actually quite similar. Each film depicts the rebellious protaganists—Colin and McMurphy—attempting to overcome the oppressive figures of authority—the Governor and Nurse Ratched.
Because of the nature of the films, viewers are lead to consider Colin and McMurphy heroes and to despise the authorities. While it is hard to deny that the Governor and Nurse Ratched don’t at times take advantage of their jurisdiction, it is also unfair to argue against the fact that they are just two people doing their jobs. Both Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest depict rebels who are doomed. The authorities at the psychiatric ward and the borstal have strict rules and expect Randle Patick McMurphy and Colin Smith to conform to these rules, just as every other patient or student has done.
The differences between the tone and outcome of these two films are a result of the differences between the types of characters who represent authority. In Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, authorities are shown to be invasive and aggressive. As Colin mentions in the opening line of the film, his family is always running from the police. Further into the film, a flashback shows a detective tracking Colin down at his house after he steals from a bakery. Before finally catching him, the detective is very persistent in his efforts to catch Colin.
This surly man provides a search warrant but is unsuccessful in his attempts to locate the stolen money, so he tells Colin that he will be watching him. The true authority figure in Loneliness, though, is the Governor at Ruxton Towers. The Governor is a nice man with absolute power. At the borstal he runs everything by the book. He holds the boys to very strict rules and standards, from having to wear uniforms to having a monitored sleeping schedule. With the boys living and going to school in the same place, there is really no way of escaping the watch of the Governor.
In fact, he even comes into the locker room and has conversations with the boys while they are in the shower. Throughout the film, there are also several religious undertones present in the representation of authority, shown primarily in the singing of the English hymn “Jerusalem. ” The Governor uses conformity as a tool to strengthen his school. His main goal is recognition for the school and for himself. In Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched is depicted as a very cold figure. She runs the psychiatric ward with an iron fist.
Yes, she answers to the head doctors and has a large staff to help her, but she runs the place. The nurse takes advantage of the vulnerability of her patients. In group ‘therapy’ sessions, she often pushes the men to talk about experiences that they are unwilling to talk about. She uses her friendship with Billy’s mother as a threat in order to get him to cooperate with her. Instead of listening to what McMurphy and the other patients want to do, she pushes her own agenda. When McMurphy and the others want to watch a game of baseball, she won’t let them for the sole purpose of not giving McMurphy what he wants.
It seems as though the head doctors (the people who should really be the authority) are oblivious to the actions of Nurse Ratched. In fact, they praise her work and there is no one capable of arguing with them. It is interesting to note that in terms of authority, there is no religious imagery in thie film like in Loneliness. Instead, it is McMurphy who appears Christ-like and takes on ‘disciples. ’ Nurse Ratched uses conformity to get her patients to do as she says. Her goal is to try to ‘fix’ each of them. The Governor is mostly respected by the boys.
He’s a nice man, but everyone is afraid of him because of his power, just as employees fear their bosses. They don’t mess with him because they know they can only get so far. He has total control over them because they eat, sleep, and go to school all under his watch. Ruxton Towers is the type of place a teenage boy would want to escape from, but the Governor has made the boys feel as though escape is beyond reality. Nurse Ratched, on the other hand, is not respected by her patients. This is a direct result of her concern with getting people to do as she says rather than gaining their respect.
Though she demands to be taken seriously, she rarely is. Her patients are all tired of her oppression but lack the physical and mental capacity to do anything about it. Also, like in Loneliness, her authority is not challenged simply because her subjects are afraid of her. Randle McMurphy and Colin Smith are game-changers. Their arrivals empower their cohorts to act out against the system. We see the authority of the Governor challenged in the food fight scene and the authority of Nurse Ratched challenged in the fishing scene. However, Colin and Randle doom themselves in their final acts of defiance.
Colin throwing the race results in his contemptment by the borstal; Randle throwing a party and chocking Nurse Ratched results in his lobotomy. In going against authority, these protagonists are left worse off than they were before. Nurse Ratched and the Governor each bring down the antihero. But does that warrant them heroes? No. It doesn’t make them good or bad. Yes, Nurse Ratched seems evil and the Governor seems overbearing, but we are only viewing them through a lens. They lead a system bad enough for people to want to rebel against it, but maybe that rebellion is against the system and not the characters.
These are two characters merely doing their jobs. Their borstal and psychiatric ward are not ones that I would want to be in, but I wouldn’t want to be in any borstal or psychiatric ward. Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest contain similar themes and represent similar figures of authority. Nurse Ratched and the Governor are not the most likeable characters. They desire order and take advantage of their power, and that makes us dislike them. But none of their actions are unprovoked. They have tough jobs and they made mistakes. They’re human.
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