Program Notes: Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
A psychiatrist once diagnosed inmate Robert Stroud (1990-1963) as a psychopath with an I.Q. of 134.
That’s a dangerous combination. Mean and smart.
From the age of 19 Stroud was in the federal prison system for murder. Behind bars he killed a prison guard. Sentenced to hang, he was saved when his mother appealed to President Woodrow Wilson.
While serving a life sentence at Leavenworth, Kansas, Stroud found a nest of injured sparrows in the prison yard and raised them to adulthood. A warden who hoped to present Leavenworth as a model of progressive incarceration provided Stroud with cages and equipment.
Over the years Stroud – who had only a third-grade education – raised nearly 300 canaries and wrote two highly respected books about diseases of birds. From his cell he launched a business in avian medicine.
In 1942, after discovering that some of his equipment was being used to distill alcohol, authorities transferred Stroud to Alcatraz, where pets were not allowed. There he wrote an autobiography and a history of the U.S. prison system.
In 1963 he died in the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.
Stroud never saw Birdman of Alcatraz, the film about his life released a year before his death.
Too bad. It’s a good movie, even if Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of Stroud makes him seem like a better person than he actually was.
Based on Thomas Gaddis’ best-selling non-fiction book, the film was made by Lancaster’s production company as a vehicle for the star. But it was a trouble-plagued production.
The first director, Englishman Charles Chrichton (who would have a huge hit decades later with A Fish Called Wanda), was fired early on. With virtually no preparation, John Frankenheimer was brought in to take over.
Reading the screenplay, Frankenheimer protested that the movie would be almost five hours long. Lancaster and his producers claimed they had timed it and it would play at 2 hour and 15 minutes. Frankenheimer was ordered to shoot the entire script as written.
The Bureau of Prisons provided zero cooperation (Stroud, still alive at the time, had long been a thorn in the Bureau’s side). When Frankenheimer’s crew manned a boat and cruised around Alcatraz Island to get exterior shots, prison guards threatened to open fire on them.
The birds didn’t cooperate. As Frankenheimer recalled: “I found out that there’s no such thing as a trained bird, only a hungry bird. And we just had to wait, and wait, and wait.”
The first cut of the film was 4 1/2 hours long, just as Frankenheimer had predicted. The producers wanted Frankenheimer to re-edit it, but he protested that was impossible given the way the story was constructed. The only way out was to radically rewrite and reshoot Birdman.
United Artists reluctantly coughed up the money for the additional work. Lancaster had just won the best actor Oscar for Elmer Gantry and it was thought wise to humor him. While the star shot Judgment at Nuremberg, Frankenheimer prepared for the additional filming.
Ultimately Frankenheimer rewrote and reshot virtually half the film.
Given all this behind-the-scenes turmoil, it’s a small miracle that Birdman of Alcatraz works. But work it does.
In large part that’s because Lancaster, who harbored near-crippling anger issues, identified so strongly with the prison inmate he was portraying. (He received an Oscar nomination for his efforts.)
In fact, even before the film’s release Lancaster was lobbying for a pardon for the now-decrepit Stroud. His hope was that the film would swing public sentiment in that direction.
Lancaster even agreed to be interviewed on live television by Mike Wallace, but stormed out in the middle of the broadcast when Wallace kept steering the conversation away from Stroud’s plight and onto the star’s own public displays of anger.
The officials of the Bureau of Prisons never relented. And in hindsight, they might have been wise to keep Stroud off the streets.
Former Alcatraz inmate Glenn Williams reported that Stroud “was not a sweetheart. He was a vicious killer. I think Burt Lancaster owes us all an apology.” Stroud, he said, “liked chaos and turmoil and upheaval, always at somebody else’s expense.”
Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- July 7: The Music Man (1962) Not Rated
- July 14: That Touch of Mink (1962) Not Rated
- July 21: Ride the High Country (1962) Not Rated
- July 28: Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.