Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

Directed by John Frankenheimer

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Birdman of Alcatraz is a little too long.  That’s my first thought.  I can only listen to the soothing musings of Burt Lancaster for so long, and with this movie I started to tune him out at around the 100 minute mark.  Lancaster plays Robert Stroud, a murderer quick to anger.  We meet him as he arrives to the Leavenworth prison where he quickly gets into a series of fights and demonstrates an intense attachment to his mother.

Stroud is sullen, grim and prone to violence, something which culminates with the murder of a prison guard.  The film takes place almost entirely in prison, charting the course of Stroud’s multiple decades behind bars, but after this second murder we go on a strange detour as Stroud’s mother attempts to protect him from the death penalty.  She works her way into a meeting with the President’s wife, and what do you know, it works.

This is a mostly unnecessary plot thread, but it leaves Stroud in solitary confinement with guards who loathe him for what he’s done.  He’s a hardened, unsympathetic criminal with many enemies and no friends.  This is our starting point.  What follows is a journey to enlightenment, taking place over the course of 40+ years.

One evening Stroud comes across a young sparrow which he takes great care in nursing back to health.  We follow his meticulous process as he constructs a habitat for the sparrow and soon a couple of canaries.  Watching him work is reminiscent of another prison film, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped.  In that film we watch in mostly silence as the protagonist works to dig his way out of prison (similar to a later Alcatraz movie, Escape From Alcatraz).

The process we watch in Birdman From Alcatraz is just as engaging, but there is no drama regarding Stroud’s fate.  We don’t know what he expects to get out of this other than peace of mind.  This is a prison movie unlike many I’ve seen in that sense.  Stroud is trapped, and he knows it.  His journey is towards a place where he can appreciate what he has and accept life for what it’s given him (and for what he’s done).

Caring for the birds is a practice through which Stroud can reach a point where he says things like, “life’s too precious a gift… the first duty of life is to live.”  Near the end of the film, Stroud will challenge his warden, accusing him of stripping away the prisoners’ humanity and individuality.  This is after he has his birds (thus his identity) taken away from him.  By the end of the movie, Stroud has been without his birds for at least 15 or so years.  He writes a book about life behind bars but does so out of anger.  When there’s a small prisoner rebellion at Alcatraz (acting as the movie’s climax), he will serve as the pacifist, first trying to take care of a dying prisoner before ending the standoff by giving the guards back their guns.

Stroud’s work with the birds help transform him into this character, one who demands the audience’s empathy.  The point of it all seems to be that people can change, and that prisons can help reform criminals.  Prison should not just be a place to punish those who have wronged but to help rehabilitate them and push them back out into the world.

Stroud starts off as some kind of demon, and during his life in prison he loses most of what means anything to him (including his relationship with his mother) and transforms himself into what others call a genius.  He’s a heroic figure and the leading expert on bird diseases, having written a book while in prison.  He becomes a minor celebrity across America when a book is written about him, and he even marries a woman on the outside.

It’s a beautiful story (again a little too long), but from what I’ve read, it’s not an accurate representation of the real Robert Stroud.  Other inmates and guards said he was more sinister and vicious than he’s portrayed as in the movie, but the point is a good one all the same.  Stroud matters more as a symbol of what someone can become even after they’ve bottomed out.  He’s a symbol of the humanity and individuality that remains buried somewhere inside a criminal within a prison system that would work to dehumanize him or her.

I suppose I can’t comment on the state of prison systems in America now or back then, but from what I gather it’s about punishment and not rehabilitation.  The purpose of Birdman of Alcatraz is to demonstrate the power of rehabilitation.  Though a murderer twice over, the Robert Stroud we see onscreen becomes a gentle, nurturing character whom you couldn’t imagine harming a fly.  He’s a sign of growth, is all.  We can all change.

I’ve already mentioned Robert Bresson once, but I’m going to do it again.  I keep thinking of Bresson when considering this film, mostly because of the criminal element of the story as well as the intricacies of his working process.  Beyond that, though, Stroud faces a grim fate in Birdman.  He has no chance of escape, and the movie never presents that as an option.  He’s a person facing their own mortality in slow motion.  His fate is determined from a young age, and his journey is to accept everything as it is.  It’s something touched on in Bresson’s Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar.  Both films are much more dour than this one, neither offering the hope Birdman does, but they both deal with eventual mortality.  It’s not a question of where your life is headed, just how long it is until you get there.  Based on the tonal differences between those two Bresson films and this one, it’s telling that Bresson ends both stories with the character’s death, a natural conclusion, while Birdman doesn’t.

Sure, Stroud was still alive when the movie was released (he would die a year later), but the movie ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that Stroud is worthy of his release.  He has done his time, demonstrated incredible growth, and now he deserves to be released.  He won, in other words, in a conventional movie sense.  This message is delivered to us in the end by the author of the book on Stroud’s life which was then turned into this movie.

Up Next: The Thin Blue Line (1988), Stalag 17 (1953), Straw Dogs (1971)

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