top of page

“Birdman of Alcatraz” – victim or killer?

Updated: Mar 11, 2022


Burt Lancaster as Robert “Birdman” Stroud.


Blu-ray, DVD; 1962; Not Rated; streaming YouTube

Best extra: Commentary with biographer Kate Burford, “Burt Lancaster: An American Life”

WAS Robert “Birdman” Stroud a mastermind or psychopath?

With only a third-grade education, he authored two books on the studies of canaries and the diseases that affected them.

But to most, Stroud was a notorious killer. His first kill was a bartender in Alaska, who refused to pay a prostitute he was pimping. Stroud was convicted of manslaughter in 1911 and sentenced to 12 years in a Washington State prison. After a number of violent outbursts, Stroud was transferred to Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas, where he stabbed a prison guard to death in the Mess Hall in front of 1,100 inmates. The killing stemmed from his anger with authorities, who refused to let him see his brother during visiting hours, after an earlier exchange with the same guard.

Stroud was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by hanging. He was to await the outcome in solitary confinement.

Burt Lancaster stars as Stroud in John Frankenheimer’s (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “Ronin”) film adaptation based on the 1995 book by journalist Thomas E. Gaddis. The movie veers from Stroud’s chronicle at times, including the motive that resulted in the guard’s death. The script switches viewpoints from his brother to his mother, who was refused visitation privileges. The focus on the bond between a mother and her troubled son makes this a more emotional story. Actress Thelma Ritter was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Elizabeth Stroud, who convinced President Woodrow Wilson to commute her son’s sentence to life imprisonment without parole. That really happened.

Stroud was then placed in permanent solitary confinement in a segregated unit by Warden Harvey Shoemaker played Karl Malden. The actual warden was T. W. Morgan. In 1942, Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz, where he lived in isolation for the next 17 years on D Block. His final 11 years were spent in prison hospitals, including a prison in Springfield, Missouri.

In the commentary, biographer Kate Buford is straightforward about her feelings on how the movie turns to fairytale instead of truth. The film depicts Stroud as a “sympathetic character and he was not,” she says.

A psychiatrist at Alcatraz determined he was a psychopath. She says several prisoners who saw the movie said “Lancaster owed them an apology because his characterization had no resemblance to the person they knew in prison.”

(1&2) After Stroud killed the prison guard he was placed in permanent solitary confinement in a segregated unit.

But Lancaster believed in Stroud’s plight and felt “Birdman from Alcatraz,” which was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Actor, Lancaster; Best Supporting Actor, Telly Savalas as prisoner Feto Gomez; Best Supporting Actress, Ritter; Best Cinematography, B&W by Burnett Guffey, who won Oscars for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “From Here to Eternity”) would be the vehicle to get Stroud freed.

At that the time, Lancaster was one of the most influential actors in Hollywood. He had just won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as evangelist/con man Elmer Gantry. Lancaster’s campaign to release Stroud hit a roadblock when prison authorities released an FBI report saying he was still a violent homosexual. Obviously, Hoover’s fingerprints were all over that report. There were 24 pardon requests to free Stroud – especially after his published research on canaries.

Much of the film explores his relationships with the birds, first finding an injured baby canary in the prison yard, which he raised. Discovering many of his birds were coming down with septic fever, Stroud waged a war on the virus by super-cleaning all of the cages, then sterilizing the cell from top to bottom. He read everything he could about the birds and started his own research. At one point he had over 300 birds.

At one point he had over 300 birds.

He fed them a combination of citrocarbonate with potassium chlorate and waited for the results. When the birds begin to chirp again, it becomes one of the film’s more powerful scenes.

Filming the little guys was extremely difficult. Frankenheimer was reported to have said, “We found out that there’s no such thing as a trained bird. There are only hungry birds.” Lancaster cherished his time with them, which remained him of childhood in East Harlem raising carrier pigeons.

Originally, 20th Century Fox toyed with producing the Stroud story right after the book was published, but the Bureau of Prisons wasn’t interested in the production since they felt it glorified a murderer, Buford says.

Lancaster’s film company, Norma Productions, financed the small film, which was released by United Artist, with most of the production shot on Columbia’s backlot in Culver City. Only brief exteriors were filmed in San Francisco looking toward the Rock – Alcatraz. Production started with British director Charles Crichton, an odd pick since he mostly directed comedies including “The Lavender Hill Mob.” Within a week, Crichton was fired and Frankenheimer was brought onboard.

Lancaster’s partner, Harold Hecht, said, “[Burt] put everything on hold, turning down more lucrative movies for this uncommercial project.”

The Blu-ray was sourced by an older 2K master (1.66:1 aspect ratio), with plenty of natural film grain. A couple of spots show a drop in sharpness levels due to second or third generation prints used to fill gaps. The sound is mono, just like the original, and features a touching and simple score from Elmer Bernstein, who was nominated for an Oscar that same year for “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and the year before for “The Magnificent Seven.”

Lancaster finally met Stroud in February 1963, just nine months before the prisoner’s death.

- Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer



bottom of page