Through a Native Lens is a column from film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Shea Vassar, who will dive into the nuance of cinema’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation. This entry looks at the most important character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest holds a special place in cinematic and pop-cultural history. Since its release in 1975, the film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel remains relevant, most recently inspiring Ryan Murphy’s deep dive into the infamous Nurse Ratched. While most talk around the film focuses on the tumultuous relationship between Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), the most important character is actually one tall quiet guy holding a broom in the corner.
At the start of the film, McMurphy makes a rambunctious debut at a mental institution. His charisma is instantly recognizable, fully alive when compared to the patients scattered around the stale, cold common room. As he waits for instructions from the ward’s staff, he walks to a tall Native man standing alone by the wall. This stranger’s hair is dark and shoulder-length with some gray streaks in the front, and his face shows little emotion. “Goddamn boy! You’re about as big as a mountain! Look like you might have played some football.”
After asking his name, McMurphy is interrupted by another patient who explains, “He’s a deaf and dumb Indian.” This inspires McMurphy to break out into a cheesy stereotypical warcry noise, but the tall Native man, whom they call Chief (Will Sampson), doesn’t flinch. While this moment is certainly not the most positive interaction, it is remarkably the first time someone has attempted to communicate with Chief in quite a long time due to his supposed status of being “deaf and dumb.”
Slowly but surely, a connection develops between Chief and McMurphy. The two couldn’t be more opposite as McMurphy goes through each day stating his exact thoughts as loudly as possible and clowning around by attempting to tear the sink out of the bathroom unsuccessfully. During all the festivities that surround McMurphy, Chief lingers in the background unseen, like a giant ghost haunting the activities of the ward.
The true testament of this onscreen duo happens after a disagreement in group therapy turns into a brawl. A nurse’s aide attempts to physically restrain McMurphy, which compels Chief to step away from his own seclusion and intervene on behalf of his friend. He forcibly tears the aide from McMurphy, displaying his strength and emotion as well as his ability to understand more than the medical staff had given him credit for.
As the two sit in the hallway waiting to be reprimanded, McMurphy offers Chief a stick of gum. “Thank you,” he says nonchalantly as he unwraps the item. McMurphy stares in unbelief. A few seconds later, after Chief makes a casual comment about Juicy Fruit, McMurphy asks if he can hear him, too. “You bet,” he answers with a smile. Chief is showing his true self as he breaks down the protective walls he had built around his tall being. This interaction immediately changes their dynamic as McMurphy now sees Chief as his equal, his partner in crime.
This simple interaction proves that Chief’s “disabilities” were assumed, put upon him as a way to silence the big Indian man in the corner. These assumptions are metaphoric for the oppression that most Native people around the world have been subjected to for centuries. To this day, the suppression of Indigenous languages, customs, and beliefs remains normalized, a form of silencing Native people and creating more invisibility for the diversity that exists within Indigenous communities.
In a late-night talk with McMurphy, Chief opens up about his father’s alcoholism and the way “they worked on him.” While this isn’t explained, the rest of the conversation alludes to Chief’s father going through an institutional system, like prison or a mental institution. Eventually, Chief mentions, very slyly, the similarities between his paternal figure and McMurphy, stating that they are working on him, too.
This moment foreshadows the tragic events that follow, but the overall conversation is ambiguous, showcasing just how bright this supposedly “deaf and dumb” man is and always has been. Chief has purposely chosen a safe life by becoming an observer, but McMurphy awakens something inside of him that no longer is satisfied with being invisible or less than those around him. He longs to be free.
Of course, the finale of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not a happy one for McMurphy. His misbehavior reaches a new level of destruction, and his punishment is a permanent state of vegetation through a lobotomy. On his arrival back to the ward, Chief realizes the sad state of his friend. “I’m going to let you out,” he says as he hugs McMurphy. “You’re coming with me.” With tears in his eyes, Chief lays McMurphy back down and pauses before smothering him with a pillow. Chief’s actions aren’t one out of murderous intentions. It is an act of mercy.
Chief has a special understanding of what that is like, as he spent who knows how long as the tallest invisible man in the world. In fact, Chief is only returning the favor as McMurphy was the catalyst for his newfound confidence and independence. The Chief that is seen during McMurphy’s first moments at the mental institution and the one at the end of the film are completely different characters.
In fact, Chief is the most dynamic character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nurse Ratched is still miserable, the other patients are more or less in the same predicament, and McMurphy was forced into a non-responsive state, but Chief is different, inspired, and ready to take on the world. He might be passive and quiet, but by the end, he no longer is bound by the restrictions around him to which he had been subjected.
Chief embraces his newfound confidence as he walks to the bathroom sink that he watched McMurphy fail to pull from the ground on more than one occasion. He grabs the huge structure and plucks it from its base. Water protrudes from the ground as Chief carries the sink to the window, thrusting it through the glass. As the other patients look at each other in shock, Chief struts through the new opening and into the open field. He has officially claimed his freedom.