In 1912, the notorious and violent prisoner Robert Franklin Stroud is transferred to the Leavenworth Prison convicted for murdering a man. When a guard cancels the visit of his mother Elizabeth Stroud due to a violation of the internal rules, he stabs and kills the guard and goes to trial three times. He is sentenced to be executed by the gallows, but his mother appeals to President Woodrow Wilson that commutes his sentence to life imprisonment. However, the warden Harvey Shoemaker decides to keep Stroud in the solitary for the rest of his life. One day, Stroud finds a sparrow that has fallen from the nest on the yard and he raises the bird until it is strong enough to fly. Stroud finds a motivation for his life raising and caring birds and becomes an expert in birds. He marries Stella Johnson and together they run a business, providing medicine developed by Stroud. But a few years after, Stroud is transferred to Alcatraz and has to leave his birds behind. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
In his narration at the start of the film, Gaddis states that Stroud has been in solitary confinement since 1916, the year Kaiser Wilhelm ordered the sinking of the Lusitania. This is incorrect on two counts. First, while Germany was then waging unrestricted submarine warfare and regarded any ships traveling to or from the British Isles as fair targets, neither the Kaiser nor the German government gave any specific order to target the Lusitania. Second, the ship was sunk in 1915, not 1916. See more »
...during which you will see all of the man-made and natural beauties, the most spectacular bay in the world. You'll pass beneath the famous Golden Gate Bridge, considered by most authorities to be one of the most striking structures ever erected by man. From the bay, you will thrill to the magnificent San Francisco skyline. Your cruise ship, the Harbor King, will circle Alcatraz, a maximum security prison containing the most dangerous criminals in America. It has been the home of ...
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If you feel a deep interest in John Frankenheimer and set up a DVD collection, you need three indispensable works from this versatile filmmaker dating from his decade glory: the sixties. They are "the Mandchurian Candidate" (1962) the template for the political film based on suspicion and conspiracy. "Seconds" (1966), the film in which Frankenheimer's obsessions and camera work reached an incredible peak. It could also be the granddaddy of the meandering "Abre Los Ojos" (1997) made by Alejandro Amenabar. And at last this "Birdman of Alcatraz". It was the film that put its creator on the map back in the sixties and it's arguably the first treasure in his filmography.
Robert Stroud is a very impulsive man and this serious drawback led him to commit several murders. After having been sentenced to life imprisonment and jailed in harsh conditions, he rescues a small sparrow from the storm and raises it until he can fly. From this watershed event, his life is going to take another grand dimension. A boundless passion for ornithology makes him famous all over the world. But during his prison sentence, he's transfered to the Alcatraz prison and this change stops him from going on in his research and his knowledge related to birds.
The adaptation of a book relating the life of the real Robert Stroud was a project close to Frankenheimer's heart and while discovering this very long film (about two hours and a half), one recognizes his hallmark in the directing with mind-boggling angles and striking camera movements. The director also plays a lot with the lighting and the scenery of the prison and notably Stroud's cell. Some shots showcase Burt Lancaster behind the bars with their shadows reflected on his face. A neat metaphor to make the audience understand that he can't escape from the scenery that surrounds him but also from the ruthless laws of justice.
The scenario also spans what made Frankenheimer a kingpin in American cinema. His set of themes revolve around the alienation of the individual in the modern world, his inability to adapt to it and the rules, constraints of society which dwarf him. At the outset, Stroud is an outcast and can't conform to the rules and laws which govern the USA. But the discovery of this wounded sparrow will make him reconcile with life. His thirst for knowledge, his willful persona for developing and deepening his knowledge in ornithology are so potent that one virtually forgets the restrained, cramped space he lives in. His cell is fraught with birds singing, cages galore test tubes for his experiences and learning books. Frankenheimer achieves the feat to make this paradox endure and so to move the audience: to film a nearly fulfilled life in a tiny space and to turn a nearly bestial human being in a respectable man. That's the victory of the individual on a repressive system.
So unlike the two Frankenheimer pieces of work I quoted in my first paragraph which spread ed an unchanging pessimistic whiff, especially "Seconds", "Birdman of Alcatraz" is bestowed with an upbeat, optimistic feel. And I won't come back on Burt Lancaster's imposing, subdued performance which has so much been rightly lauded. One word about Robert Stroud's mother: she may be a distant cousin of Raymond Shaw's in "the Mandchurian Candidate" for she is against the marriage of her son.
Whenever this film is evoked, the controversy about the real Robert Stroud comes back. They always tell he wasn't this brainy, sensitive man described in Frankenheimer's film but it doesn't stop you from watching one of the most momentous films in the filmmaker's canon and probably his most harrowing one.
NB: the real Robert Stroud was never allowed to watch the film.
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