Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The Birds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience – the story of a man who’s able to lead a meaning and productive existence despite serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. A man who is able to create an empire of bird keeping and aviary research within the solitary confinement quarters of a prison. When I first watched Birdman of Alcatraz I only vaguely knew about the story of Robert Stoud and thus I was in awe as just how his empire gradually comes to be as he MacGvyers the little he has at his disposal to create a grand sanctuary. I don’t know what it’s like to be isolated in a confined area for days on end but I suspect this movie may provide the closest feeling I could ever get to it; black & white cinematography and claustrophobic prison cells go hand in hand not to mention the daunting narration by Edmund O’Brien creates an ongoing sense of foreboding.

Birdman of Alcatraz made me a fan of Burt Lancaster. It was not the first film I had seen him in but it was the first at which I was struck at what an immense powerhouse of an actor he is, carrying a two and a half-hour long, mostly single location picture. His portrayal of Robert Stroud is the classic characterisation of tough on the outside, soft on the inside. A heartless monster who learns the value of humanity and cares for a creature as delicate and feminine as a bird. It’s a dichotomy that can come off as very corny but Lancaster’s immense performance prevents it from coming off like this. Stroud’s relationship with his mother (Thelma Ritter) even has shades to the Cody Jarret mother complex. Yet just as compelling is the relationship between Stroud and the warden played by Karl Malden, which I feel is summed up with one line (and one of my favourite movie quotes), “That convict has been a thorn in my side for 35 years but I’ll give him one thing, he never lied to me.”

Birdman of Alcatraz is a tale of rehabilitation with a clear anti-death penalty message. Early in the film when Stroud’s mother speaks to First Lady Edith Wilson, she speaks of how she believes the current President doesn’t believe in the barbarity of “eye for an eye”. Due to Stroud’s pardon, the stone-cold killer went on to achieve great things in the field of aviary research and discovering cures for various aviary diseases. Later in the film, Stroud’s birds are taken away from him and he is unable to engage in commercial enterprise following rules from the newly established Federal Bureau of Prisons. The pain of seeing the one thing giving Stroud meaning in his life being taken away from him when he’s transferred to Alcatraz is unbearable viewing.

Like many biographical films, Birdman of Alcatraz receives criticism with the historical liberties taken; most prominently in this instance the fact that the real Robert Stroud was reportedly an incredibly unpleasant individual. I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: Movies are not documentaries. When adapting a real-life story to the screen, changes and liberties are likely going to be made for the sake of storytelling and entertainment; would a story closer to the truth have been more interesting? My second rebuttal to the ‘not historically accurate’ criticism is that how many people would even be aware of certain historical figures if it wasn’t for their film biopics; movies can act as a gateway to learning about history. After watching Birdman of Alcatraz I wanted to read about the real Robert Stroud, otherwise, I might not have even heard of the man.