Birdman of Alcatraz is often cited as one of the greatest prison dramas ever committed to film; and now, for the first time ever, the moving human drama has been brought to Blu-Ray in stunning quality.
Telling the highly fictionalised story of real life prisoner Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) through his many years incarcerated in Leavenworth prison and later Alcatraz. Sent to prison for murder, Stroud quickly finds himself at odds with those running the institute due to a rebellious streak. After fatally attacking a guard, he’s placed in solitary confinement where he discovers a baby sparrow, which he nurses back to health. This begins a passion with birds that would become an area of expertise, earning him the moniker ‘Birdman’.
After being moved to Alcatraz, Stroud continues to find himself at odds with prison authorities, yet still manages to help stop a prison riot. Eventually, Stroud is moved on again to another prison, where he would remain.
Having read a lot about Robert Stroud, it’s difficult to fully enjoy the film as the story is so removed from actual events to be almost completely fictional. One of the biggest issues is that Burt Lancaster is too likeable as Stroud. Whilst he doesn’t play the character as a ‘good’ person, there’s enough charm to him that by the end, the audience is very clearly supposed to come away liking Stroud. This is in large down to changes made to events that paint the man in a much kinder light.
For example, the film says that Stroud killed a prison guard due to an issue around being denied visitation with his mother. Whereas, in real life, he stabbed a man to death over a minor rule infraction. His role in helping to end a prison riot on Alcatraz is also an attempt to show him as a kinder, more reformed prisoner, but in real life he had no involvement in this incident in any way. In fact, the escape attempt was not even a full scale riot at all and only involved six prisoners.
Whilst these historic inaccuracies may not be too much of an issue for a casual audience member, I couldn’t help but stumble through them, with the depiction of Stroud drawing me out of what was an otherwise enjoyable film experience. Lancaster is on fine form but the real Stroud was far from mild-mannered. Hewas described by those who knew him as “jerk”, a “vicious killer” and someone who “liked chaos and turmoil”. It is reported that fellow prisoners who saw Birdman of Alcatraz actually said that Burt Lancaster “owes us all an apology”.
Despite these historical inaccuracies, the film itself is well deserving of its place as a classic of cinema. The direction from John Frankenheimer is good throughout and he gives his actors the room to give life to their characters. The scenes are longer than they would be in a modern film and the dialogue is much slower, but this actually gives a lot a weight to scenes that would otherwise be fairly flat.
Arguably, Lancaster gives Stroud more depth and charisma than the real person had (or deserved) and some of his scenes are incredibly absorbing. Burt is also accompanied by a strong supporting cast; in particular Karl Malden as Harvey Shoemaker, the embodiment of the prison system that frequently butts heads with Lancaster.
The Blu-Ray looks beautiful and it appears that a great deal of time and effort has been made into presenting the film in the best possible quality. The picture and sound quality are superb and Blu-Ray is definitely the best way to watch this classic. Whether you’ve seen it before or have only ever heard about it, now is the perfect time to watch the oft-cited cinematic masterpiece.
Birdman of Alcatraz is out now on Blu-Ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. Check out the trailer below and let us know what you think in the comments section.