Grade: B+
1962, 149 min., Black-and-white
Biopic, Drama
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

A prison drama for family viewing? Normally not, but Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t your typical prison movie. It’s not an action film or one that feeds off familiar prison tropes. For the first two-thirds of this 1962 black-and-white drama, which earned four Oscar nominations, there are no escape attempts, no guard brutality, no prison gangs ruled by mobsters, no trading cigarettes to get easy jobs, no sexual assaults, no riots, and nothing remotely loud or uncivil.

Birdman of Alcatraz tells the story of Robert Franklin Stroud, who spent most of his adult life in prison. There are no backstories. We are told only that he is imprisoned at the medium-security federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, because he killed a man in Alaska—a man who was beating up a prostitute. And he has an old photo of his mother that he keeps on a shelf. Most of the film takes place in Leavenworth before a prison official who resented Stroud got him transferred to Alcatraz. But, of course, Birdman of Leavenworth just doesn’t have the same ring. Alcatraz, “The Rock,” was a high-security penitentiary where troublemakers from the other prisons were sent.

In this highly focused biopic we are not told that Stroud ran away from home at age 13 because of an abusive father, or that he became a pimp in Alaska when he was only 18. The film tells the story of his transformation—one that the prison system itself had nothing to do with. And that transformation is pretty fascinating.

Though Birdman of Alcatraz conjures up visions of a convict trying to escape by taking flight, Stroud escapes metaphorically and his life finds purpose after he discovers a nest in a rainy prison yard with an injured baby sparrow in it. He brings the nest into his cell and, despite never going to school, he figures out how to care for the bird and nurse it back to health. Then, since none of the guards seem to mind, he orders a shipment of canaries and starts raising those birds, then shares some with an inmate in the next cell. When his birds start to die, he experiments with a treatment that had never been used before and during the course of his time at Leavenworth he acquired a collection of some 300 canaries. Eventually he wrote a book on Diseases of Canaries, which was smuggled out of Leavenworth and made him the foremost expert on bird diseases in the world.

In the film, which downplays anything illegal or negative, a prison official gives permission for the book to be sent to a publisher, and we only see Stroud “getting drunk” once—without being told that Stroud used his bird laboratory not only to create avian cures, but to make booze. We’re also not told that he stabbed a fellow prisoner for reporting him for stealing food to feed his birds, or that he also assaulted someone who reported his attempt to obtain morphine. Though more than a few prison officials were resentful of the real Stroud, in the film we see only two negative reactions that are balanced by a close friendship with another guard (Neville Brand). So yes, it’s a sanitized biopic, and all facts except his relationship with the birds have been altered.

There are only a few “prison movie” moments, and the worst being a stabbing murder that would make this unrated film suitable only for teenagers and older. For them, Birdman of Alcatraz tells a pretty unique story, and subtexts include a subtle critique on the prison system. Without his birds, Stroud penned a history of the U.S. penal system that was far from flattering.

Burt Lancaster won a Best Foreign Actor BAFTA and earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing Stroud two years after he won Best Actor for playing Elmer Gantry and nine years after he was nominated for Best Actor in From Here to Eternity. Karl Malden also stars, and Telly Savalas (TV’s Kojak) and character actress Thelma Ritter picked up Best Supporting Actor and Actress nominations for their roles as the con next door and Stroud’s mother. It’s a well acted, tautly directed drama from John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May), and absorbing enough for families with older children who want to expand their movie horizons.

Language: Clean by today’s standards, with hardly anything of notice
Sex: n/a
Violence: SPOILER – One stabbing and one prison riot with shooting and PG-13 violence in the third act
Adult situations: that brief downplayed episode of drinking
Takeaway: I saw this film when I was 12 years old and it is still just as fascinating to watch today