Birdman of Alcatraz (film)

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Birdman of Alcatraz
Bird man of alcatraz342.jpg
Original theatrical release poster by Saul Bass
Directed byJohn Frankenheimer
Written byThomas E. Gaddis (book)
Guy Trosper
Produced byHarold Hecht
Stuart Millar
Guy Trosper
StarringBurt Lancaster
Karl Malden
Thelma Ritter
Neville Brand
Edmond O'Brien
Telly Savalas
CinematographyBurnett Guffey
Edited byEdward Mann
Music byElmer Bernstein
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • July 3, 1962 (1962-07-03)
Running time
143 minutes
CountryUnited States

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) is an American biographical drama film directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster.[2][3] It is a largely fictionalized[4] version of the life of Robert Stroud, sentenced to solitary confinement after having killed a prison guard. A federal prison inmate, he became known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" because of his studies of birds, which had taken place when he was incarcerated at Leavenworth Prison. He was allowed to keep birds in jail. When moved to Alcatraz, Stroud was never allowed to keep any birds.[5]

The film was adapted by Guy Trosper from the 1955 book by Thomas E. Gaddis. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Burt Lancaster), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Telly Savalas), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Thelma Ritter), and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.[6]


Robert Stroud is imprisoned as a young man for committing a murder in Alaska. He is shown as a rebellious inmate, fighting against a rigid prison system: while being transported with other prisoners by train, he breaks open the window to allow the suffocating inmates to breathe.

He comes into conflict with Harvey Shoemaker, warden of Leavenworth Prison.

While in jail, Stroud learns that his mother tried to visit him but was denied and told to return later in the week. Outraged, he attacks a guard, fatally stabbing him. Stroud is sentenced to death, but his mother runs a successful campaign to have his sentence commuted to life in prison. The sentence requires him to serve in solitary confinement for the rest of his life.

While in the exercise yard during a heavy rainstorm, Stroud finds a downed nest holding an orphaned baby sparrow. He takes care of the bird, and starts a trend. He and other convicts acquire and care for birds, such as canaries, given from outside sources.

Stroud develops a collection of birds and cages. When the birds fall ill, he conducts experiments and comes up with a cure. As the years pass, Stroud becomes an expert on bird diseases and publishes a book on the subject. His writings are so impressive that a doctor describes him as a "genius".

Stroud is later visited by bird-lover Stella Johnson and agrees to go into business, marketing his bird remedies. He and Stella later marry, but his mother disapproves. This causes a permanent rift between mother and son. He is abruptly transferred to the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz, a new maximum-security institution where he is not permitted to keep birds. Although growing elderly, he remains independent, writing a history of the U.S. penal system that is suppressed by Shoemaker, now warden of the Rock.

Still at odds with authority, Stroud helps end a prison rebellion in 1946 by throwing out the two firearms acquired by the convicts. He assures the authorities that they can now re-enter the premises without risk of being shot. Shoemaker acknowledges Stroud never lied to him and takes him at his word.

After a petition campaign by admirers, Stroud is eventually transferred to another prison in Missouri. During the move, he meets several reporters and displays a range of knowledge on more than just birds, such as the technical details of a passing jet aircraft. He meets author Thomas E. Gaddis, who wrote a book based on his life.



British director Charles Crichton was picked for this film and his United States debut, but he clashed with Lancaster and was replaced by Frankenheimer.[7] According to actor Strother Martin, "I had a nice role in Birdman of Alcatraz. They fired the original director, Charles Crichton, and I went out with him. I was replaced by Leo Penn who was eventually cut out of the picture entirely."[8]


Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 84% of 19 surveyed critics, both contemporaneous and modern, gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 7.1/10.[9] In discussing the film's prison setting, Variety wrote, "Birdman reverses the formula and brings a new breadth and depth to the form."[10] A. H. Weiler of The New York Times called it "a thoughtful yet powerful portrait that cleaves to the heart and mind despite its omissions".[11]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Some former inmates who knew Stroud criticized the film's portrayal of the man. Former Alcatraz inmate Glenn Williams said that Stroud "was not a sweetheart; he was a vicious killer. I think Burt Lancaster owes us all an apology".[13] Another former convict, Jim Quillan, described the real Stroud as a "jerk", and as "a guy that liked chaos and turmoil and upheaval... Always at somebody else's expense".[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Da Capo 2000 p 209
  2. ^ Variety film review; June 20, 1962, page 6.
  3. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; June 23, 1962, page 94.
  4. ^ See, e.g., Jolene Babyak, Bird Man: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud (Berkeley, California: Ariel Vamp Press, 1994, rev. 2011)
  5. ^ Rachel Bell, "Jail Birds: The Story of Robert Stroud", TruTV
  6. ^ Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Awards at Internet Movie Database
  7. ^ Bergan, Ronald (14 September 1999). "Charles Crichton". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 December 2015.
  8. ^ Scott, Vernon (20 May 1978). "Actor lives in fear of snips". Lodi News-Sentinel. Retrieved 16 December 2015.
  9. ^ "Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2015-12-12.
  10. ^ "Review: 'Birdman of Alcatraz'". Variety. 1962. Retrieved 2015-12-12.
  11. ^ Weiler, A. H. (1962-07-19). "Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-12-12.
  12. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  13. ^ "Alumni' revisit The Rock, San Francisco Chronicle
  14. ^ Michael Palin, Full Circle, BBC Books, 1997, Chapter "Day 234: San Francisco"

External links[edit]