Open main menu

Birdman of Alcatraz is a 1962 American biographical drama film starring Burt Lancaster and directed by John Frankenheimer.[2][3] It is a largely fictionalized[4] version of the life of Robert Stroud, a federal prison inmate known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" because of his life with birds. In spite of the title, much of the action is set at Leavenworth Prison, where Stroud was jailed with his birds. When moved to Alcatraz he was not allowed to keep any pets.[5]

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

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 (Lancaster) 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: on his way to jail by train he breaks open the window to allow the suffocating inmates to breathe. His rebellious attitude puts him in conflict with Harvey Shoemaker (Malden), the warden of Leavenworth Prison.

While in jail, Stroud learns that his mother (Ritter) tried to visit him but was denied and told to return later in the week. Outraged, he attacks a guard over the issue and stabs the man to death. Stroud is sentenced to death, but his mother runs a successful campaign and he is commuted to life in prison. The terms of the sentence require that he be kept in solitary confinement for the rest of his life.

To break the monotony, Stroud adopts an orphaned baby sparrow as a pet. This starts a trend and he and the other convicts acquire birds, such as canaries, as gifts from the outside. Before long, Stroud has built up a collection of birds and cages. When they fall ill, he conducts experiments and comes up with a cure. As the years pass, Stroud becomes an expert on bird diseases and even publishes a book on the subject. His writings are so impressive that a doctor describes him as a "genius".

Stroud later meets bird-lover Stella Johnson (Betty Field) and agrees to go into business, marketing his bird remedies. He and Stella later marry, but his mother disapproves and this causes a rift between mother and son. He is abruptly transferred to the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz (the "Rock"), a new maximum security institution where he is not permitted to keep birds. He is now growing elderly but still shows a rebellious side, 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 nevertheless manages to help stop a prison rebellion in 1946 by throwing out the guns acquired by the convicts. He then assures the authorities that they can now re-enter the premises without fear of being shot. Although Stroud has been a thorn in his side for decades, Shoemaker acknowledges that he has never lied to him and takes him at his word.

Although constantly denied parole, Stroud is eventually transferred to another prison in Missouri after a petition campaign. 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 even gets to meet Thomas E. Gaddis (Edmond O'Brien), the author of the book based on his life.



This was to have been the American film debut for British director Charles Crichton until he clashed with Lancaster and was replaced by Frankenheimer.[7] According to 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] According to those who knew him while he was in prison, the mild-mannered characterization of Stroud, as presented in Gaddis' book and the subsequent film, was largely fiction. Former inmate Glenn Williams went so far as to say that Stroud "was not a sweetheart; he was a vicious killer. I think Burt Lancaster owes us all an apology".[12] He and another former convict, Jim Quillan, described the real Stroud as a "jerk", "a guy that liked chaos and turmoil and upheaval... Always at somebody else's expense". They regarded the film as a "comedy... an excellent comedy".

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

See alsoEdit


  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"
  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. ^ "Alumni' revisit The Rock, article on, online home of the San Francisco Chronicle
  13. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-13.

External linksEdit