The Birdman of Alcatraz
… really should have been called the Birdman of Leavenworth, but I agree the title the book writer and then the movie producer used is sexier. But Robert Stroud had no birds during his years at Alcatraz, they weren’t allowed there. All the work he did in bird diseases, all his canary breeding, took place in Kansas.
You have to be careful when talking about a movie “based on fact.” They usually stretch the truth quite a bit, and that is the case here. So you can complain about what they got wrong, or you can review the movie they made. I like to know what really happened, but if they make a great movie that has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth, I can still love the movie. That’s the case here. According to inmates who knew him, Stroud was a nasty sonofabitch, a trouble-maker, not the saintly man Burt Lancaster portrays in the last half of the movie. He had a terrible temper. He probably never should have had parole—which he didn’t, he died in prison. The movie makes you think that terrible injustices were done to him, and that’s just not true. The crusading warden, played by Karl Malden, who devoted himself to making Stroud’s life miserable? I’d say he had a pretty good justification. The murderous bastard killed one of his guards over nothing, and that’s not something I would ever forgive. All the times and places of Stroud’s lousy life are accurate, as is the list of his amazing accomplishments, but they don’t tell you that every psychologist who ever saw him diagnosed him a psychopath.
The true sadness in the story is that he did do good work with the birds, and that was all thrown away when he was moved to The Rock. But they don’t tell you that his cell was filthy from all the birds, and that he himself had no personal hygiene. The authorities had legitimate concerns about disease.
Now forget all that, and simply look at the movie. It is a masterpiece, and probably the best performance in Burt Lancaster’s illustrious career. Forget the real Stroud, and just look at the fictional man he embodies, his slow redemption from an angry man with no purpose, to a real scientist, and a man with compassion. Sure, it’s bullshit, but it’s lovely bullshit. You wish it could have been true, and in a larger sense, it is true. True to its vision of redemption, of telling a great story. Who cares if it’s a lie?