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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest cover

Blu-ray Reviews: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Originally published in Sound and Image, April 2009, v.22#5
Last updated 26 June 2009

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
1975 - Warner Bros Entertainment Australia Pty Ltd
Director: Milos Forman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Sydney Lassick, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson, Danny DeVito, Dean R. Brooks and Scatman Crothers

Movie: 5 Picture: 4 Sound: 3 Extras: 3

Every serious home movie collection must contain certain movies in order to justify being called serious. These include The Godfather, Casablanca, 12 Angry Men, Seven Samurai and, of course, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The only question is which format.

Based on Ken Kesey's novel, it is a movie that might also have been made in the 1960s. The actor Kirk Douglas acquired movie rights to the book, and thought that a young Czech director would be well suited to it. He mailed Milos Forman a copy of the book but never heard back. Douglas thought Forman rude for never even acknowledging the proposal. Forman thought Douglas rude for failing to send the book. Of course, the book had been seized by the Czech authorities, as Communist regimes were wont to do.

Eventually the movie was produced not by Kirk, but his son Michael Douglas and his production partner Saul Zaentz. Jack Nicholson then was Jack Nicholson the top notch actor, rather than Jack Nicholson the institution. The rest of the cast were largely unknown. The chilling Nurse Mildred Ratched was not supposed to be played by Louise Fletcher, but she won Best Actress.

As a story, this movie is, basically, perfect.

But we return to the question: which format? There have been four disc versions in Australia. It was released in 1999 in a short-lived version unaccountably re-formatted to 2.35:1. After some sharp criticism, it was re-released that same year in its proper 1.85:1. That's the version I've owned these many years, and shown all my children over this time. The quality of this version was horrible.

It was only after Warner Bros sent me the Blu-ray version that I discovered that the movie had been re-released as a 'Special Edition' in 2002, with remastered video and an attempt at Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. That sound is also used on the Blu-ray, except with a higher bitrate - but it doesn't really add much to the original mono sound on what is, essentially, a talky kind of movie. The video of the 2002 version was vastly better than the first one and it carried essentially the same suite of extras as this Blu-ray version.

In addition to being far sharper and more detailed, there was less MPEG2 compression noise and the colour was more accurate.

I would love to say that the Blu-ray version of this dark tale is hugely better, but I suspect that there are severe limitations to what can be pulled from the source. If you have the 2002 DVD and wish to upgrade to the Blu-ray, you will get a better picture, but not one that is markedly sharper or more detailed. It is just more film-like, with no artefacts. It remains a little soft, though. This, I think, is largely due to the natural light used for filming, and 1970s film stock. Even though Warner Bros used only 19.66GB of this single layer disc, and threw in a hour's worth of standard definition extras, more bits in the VC1 encode are unlikely to have had any affect.

The colour is much the same as the 2002 version, which is to say nothing like the 1999 DVD, which was way off. But the framing is a touch different, with a thin slice of the DVD's left side of the frame missing from the Blu-ray.

Running time: 134 minutes
Picture: 1.78:1, 1080p24, VC1 @ 14.25Mbps
Sound: English: Dolby Digital 3/2.1 @ 640kbps; French, German, Italian, 2 x Spanish, Commentary: Dolby Digital 1/0.0 @ 192kbps
Subtitles: English, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian, Italian for the Hearing Impaired, Spanish, Dutch, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazil), Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguguese, Swedish, Korean (Commentary)
Extras: Documentary: 'The Making of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"' (480i60, VC1, DPL 2.0 @ 192kbps - 47 mins); Trailer (480i60, VC1, DPL 2.0 @ 192kbps - 3 mins); Eight segments of Additional Footage (480i60, VC1, DPL 2.0 @ 192kbps - 14 mins)
Restrictions: Rated M (Australian rating); Region Free

This is the video bitrate graph for this movie, generated by BDInfo 0.5.2:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest video bitrate graph

Comparison: Blu-ray vs PAL DVD

NOTE: See Part II below for comparison with the 2002 PAL DVD release

Here are some comparisons between the PAL DVD and the Blu-ray version of this movie. The DVD used in the first one released in the correct aspect ratio, back in 1999, not the 'Special Edition' released in 2002. I was unaware of this reissue until I had nearly completed this page. Apparently the newer version is greatly improved compared to this one, so you can expect the differences between that version and the Blu-ray to be accordingly reduced.

I shall try to think of a way of getting ahold of the newer DVD for comparison.

At the top of each is the full frame (suitably shrunk down) used in the comparison, with a 250 pixel wide detail from the frame underneath. The left side is from the PAL DVD. The image was captured digitally from the disc, scaled up from its native 720 by 576 resolution to 1,024 by 576 (to present in the correct aspect ratio), and then, in order to be comparable to the Blu-ray version, from that to 1,920 by 1,080. The detail is from that last scaled version, and has not been rescaled again. The right side is from the Australian Blu-ray. This has not been scaled at all.

Different applications were used to capture the two frames, so I am not normally comfortable comparing the colour between the two, merely the detail and sharpness. For those visitors from NTSC lands, generally the PAL DVD is just a touch sharper than the NTSC DVD.

This is not, and never has been, a sharply focused, highly detailed movie. It was shot using natural light as much as possible, and that under mostly cloudy skies. So significant film grain and limited detail was inevitable -- grain due to the faster film stocks that the shooting style necessitated. Still, the result does include far more detail than the DVD, and more importantly a natural and coherent look:

Comparison 1

Look here, particularly, at the grass. The detail is restored. From the DVD, you know that there is grass there. From the Blu-ray, you can tell something about the grass:

Comparison 2

I always thought there were many courageous performances in this movie, not least that of Brad Dourif, playing Billy. Just one element of the bravery was appearing with noticably acne -- accurate, but not flattering. Except that you may never notice from the DVD. Instead all you will see there are artefacts that aren't actually on the film, such as those vertical creases between his eyebrows:

Comparison 3

That chap on the wheelchair behind the Chief is actually rather hard to notice on the full screen of the DVD:

Comparison 4

Even under a blue sky outdoors, still not very sharp. But the Blu-ray is far more natural and easier on the eye than the DVD:

Comparison 5

Finally, what almost always separates Blu-ray from DVD: rough cloth:

Comparison 6

Comparison: Blu-ray vs PAL DVD - PART II

What follows is pretty much the same as what goes above, except this time I use the 2002 Special Edition PAL DVD for the comparison. This is much, much better than the original release.

That does not mean that the DVDs are pretty much the same. Indeed, the 2002 version is significantly improved over the 1999 version, but nowhere near enough for it to challenge the Blu-ray. See the way Louise Fletcher's mouth is distorted by lack of resolution, the random artefacts, the edge enhancement around her cloak, and the thick cross-hatching of the security door, all of which have been eliminated by the Blu-ray:

Comparison 1

The grass on the Blu-ray remains more clearly defined, and there is a hint of noise around most details in the DVD that detracts from the picture's coherence:

Comparison 2

The silly artefacts from the old DVD are gone and the detail is far more apparent. You can even see the blue eyes, but notice the relevant reality of the white of the eye:

Comparison 3

Once again, the Blu-ray offers more true detail and less irritating false detail, and note also the far closer colour match than that offered by the older DVD:

Comparison 4

See the MPEG2 compression noise on the white section of the boat's superstructure, absent from the Blu-ray:

Comparison 5

The 2002 DVD restores much of the texture of this knit, but the hands remain cleaner on the Blu-ray:

Comparison 6

© 2002-2009, Stephen Dawson