Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The Birds

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 life 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 the movie I only vaguely knew about the story and I was in awe as just how his empire gradually comes to be. 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.

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 but Lancaster’s immense performance prevents this from coming of as a corny dichotomy. Stroud’s relationship with his mother even has shades to the Cody Jarret mother complex; yet I find the most compelling relationship in the movie is of that 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.”

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.

 

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