Flipping Reality The Bird
I probably shouldn’t admit this given that I consider myself relatively well versed in classic cinema, but I’ve seen alarmingly few Burt Lancaster films. In fact, out of the 86 titles listed on his IMDb page, I’ve seen exactly two, and one of them is Field of Dreams. Not that Lancaster’s performance in that flick was unworthy, his Moonlight Graham was the most fully realized character in that film, but by that point Lancaster was 76 and in his final theatrical release.
The other Lancaster film I’ve seen came after my wife and I visited a friend in San Francisco and hit the usual tourist traps including the dormant island prison of Alcatraz. When we got back home, we watched Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz (which is exactly what it sounds like, was filmed on location, and matched the description of the real-life events we were given while touring the prison) and Lancaster’s Birdman of Alcatraz, which was shot on stage sets and could more accurately be said to have been “inspired by” rather than “based on” the life of the titular character.
The actual Birdman of Alcatraz was Robert Stroud, a teenage runaway who became a pimp in Alaska and, ten days shy of his 18th birthday in 1909, shot another pimp during a scuffle and was convicted of manslaughter. Various incidents during Stroud’s incarceration, including the murder of a guard, increased his sentence, ultimately to death, but in 1920, his mother appealed to President Woodrow Wilson for a stay of execution and was given one. Stroud instead spent the next 23 years in solitary confinement at Leavenworth Federal Penitentary before being moved to Alcatraz. While at Leavenworth, Stroud took an interest in some injured birds in the courtyard and, over the years, turned himself into one of the leading ornithological minds in the world and the author of the classic text, Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds, among other titles.
The film, released in 1962, a year before Stroud’s death, is a fictionalization of Stroud’s story with Lancaster playing a stoic, heroic version of the brilliant psychopath who wasn’t actually allowed to keep birds after being transferred to Alcatraz in 1943. As biography, it’s bunk. As a tale of rehabilitation and self-motivation, it’s inspirational, thanks largely to the quiet dignity of Lancaster’s performance.
In fact, if you can put aside the degree to which it whitewashes the actual Stroud and botches the facts, it’s a wonderful film. Two of my favorite supporting players of the era, Thelma Ritter and Karl Malden, play Stroud’s mother and warden, respectively; Telly Savalas appears in an entertaining character role; and the director, who took over after production began, is a 32-year-old John Frankenheimer, whose next film was The Manchurian Candidate.
It’s worth remembering, however, who the real Stroud was. Rather than a mixed-up kid who failed to find his calling until too late in life and whose brilliance instead boiled over into rebellion and violence until a dedication to his work allowed him to live the life of the mind while his body was imprisoned, Stroud was a diagnosed psychopath whose ornithological genius was yet another product of a violently overactive brain that never found peace. Said one former fellow inmate who described Stroud as “a vicious killer,” “I think Burt Lancaster owes us all an apology.”