Chief: “My papa was real big. He did like he pleased. That’s why everybody worked on him. The last time I seen my father he was blind in the cities from drinking and every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he don’t suck out of it, it sucks out of him. . . . I’m not saying they killed him. The just worked on him, the way they’re working on you.”
The Chief’s warning occurs late at night following McMurphy’s electroshock treatments, as McMurphy kneels beside the Chief’s bed and confesses that he can’t take the institution anymore. The Chief, a physical giant, whispers, making himself small to emphasize his inability to escape with McMurphy. The Chief introduces size as a measure of inner rather than outer reality. By asserting that McMurphy is much bigger than he is, he measures with a different yardstick—that of the heart. The Chief, who speaks very little in the film, says a great deal in these few words. By comparing McMurphy to his father, he makes clear his love and respect. To the Chief, the size of both men he admires is in their ability to do as they please. They behave as men, as individuals, as rebels against institutions of authority.
The Chief implies that society represses such big men when he says that everybody “worked on” his father. His father coped with society’s repression by escaping into alcohol. He drank until he was blind, until he no longer had to see the injustice of his situation. Both the cities and the mental institution stand for crowding and oppression, and neither leaves room for such a big man. Alcohol steals more from his father than it gives him: it robs him of his dignity and vision and sucks the soul from his body. Like Nurse Ratched’s sedatives, alcohol provides only the illusion of killing the pain. McMurphy assumes that drinking killed the Chief’s father, but the Chief suggests that something far worse can happen to a man than the death of his body. Repression works on a man and makes him smaller, blinding him and draining the manhood from him. This is what happened to the Chief’s father, and it is what the Chief sees happening to McMurphy. The Chief speaks near the end of the film with the voice of prophecy and doom so that McMurphy—and viewers—will heed his lesson.