Fooling Them All: The Use of Projection in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST

(Originally written in 2011) Before you proceed, I would recommend reading my previous essay- Imagining the Real as this is an extension of that post. 

In Milos Forman's 1976 classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the lead character R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) presents an interesting case study in the use of Projection.  To the other patients, McMurphy represents freedom, virility, joy; perhaps even a personification of youth itself. The patients can live vicariously through McMurphy and experience emotions and ideas they're unable to express on their own. We see this most clearly when they escape from the hospital for the day and go on a fishing expedition. McMurphy introduces them as doctors and one can see the confidence and pride it instills. For a moment, they are doctors and not just patients.

Another scene I find particularly interesting is when McMurphy asks to watch the world series and Nurse Ratchet refuses even after the majority vote in his favor. Throughout the film, Nurse Ratchet and McMurphy are at odds so there's nothing unusual about this refusal. However, it is McMurphy's response that's thrilling. If he is a Christic figure, this is his first miracle.

After Nurse Ratchet refuses to turn on the television, McMurphy imagines out loud that he's not only watching the World Series but is actually there in person, and his projection is so pure, so full of joy and hope, that the other patients are able to go to the ballpark right along with him. Forman captures this notion of projection perfectly when he shows the blank television screen reflecting the images of McMurphy and the other patients. The notion of projection comes full circle here as they are looking at a television, a purveyor of projected images, yet see a reflection of McMurphy which in turn allows them to see the World Series.

Of course, McMurphy not only creates projections, he is a projection. We mostly see this through the character of Chief in that McMurphy literally gives him his voice back by helping "feel as big as a damn mountain" again. Chief also understands that McMurphy is a projection of power and hope to the other patients as well. After the lobotomy is performed, Chief realizes that any projection will be destroyed when Nurse Ratchet places McMurphy back on the ward in a wheelchair as a daily reminder of what happens when her authority is challenged. Chief instead wants the projection to remain intact.  Right before he suffocates him, Chief says, "I can't leave you here this way. I'm going to take you with me." By suffocating him, Chief is able to preserve McMurphy as a projection for himself (the meaning of the phrase "I'm going to take you with me.") and for the other patients as well. For the patients in the hospital, there are rumors that McMurphy has been lobotomized, while others expect him to come down the hallway grinning as he always had before. When Chief tears the sink out of the floor and throws it through the window and runs to freedom, the patients clearly believe it is McMurphy finally breaking free and doing exactly what he said he would. It is a triumphant moment, not only because we see Chief break free of the hospital's oppressive power structure, we know that McMurphy has broken free as well in that his image or projection has been preserved.