The Bird Motif in The Birdman of Alcatraz
There were lots of very interesting things going on in this movie, but one thing that stood out the most was the bird motif. The birds seem to symbolize both freedom as well as the prisoners themselves in the movie.
The opening, which shows the photos of birds held in hands, sets a tragic and foreboding tone for the movie. The photos show a strange mix of fragility, beauty, and brutality. The birds provide the fragile beauty to the photos, but the stark lighting of the photos and the way that big hands overshadows the birds is a little eerie and scary. It’s like as if the hands are holding the birds imprisoned; it seems so easy to just squash the birds. The photos seems to represent the two sides of Stroud—his brutal, cruel side and his tender, softer side.
The relationship between Stroud and his mother is very strange in the movie; it almost borders on being inappropriate. Stroud is extremely attached to his mom—he gets extremely upset by something so small as another inmate touching his mother’s picture or talking about his mom. His mother, on the other hand, is very possessive towards her son; she only wants her son for herself. She wants her son to be imprisoned forever so that she would have him only to herself. Again, you see here that Stroud is like a bird in a cage—his mother, the bird keeper, wants her bird to stay in her cage.
Stroud’s interaction with the friendly guard in Leavenworth is very interesting. Initially, Stroud shuts himself off from everyone and treats people like “animals.” He kills two people without guilt or remorse. He only interacts with people when he absolutely needs to—he only thinks of bargaining with the guard who has been friendly to him for 12 years, and never once thought of befriending him until the guard snapped and told him that he is a human being and wants to be treated like one. This scene is very ironic because on the surface, it seems like Stroud is the one who is objectified and dehumanized as a prisoner, but it also suggests that opposite can be true as well.
Stroud’s relocation to Alcatraz is I think one of the turning points in the movie. Whereas in Leavenworth Stroud is the “bird keeper,” in Alcatraz, “the bird island,” he is the bird. He no longer has his birds anymore, and he and the other prisoners are strictly disciplined according to the rules of Harvey Shoemaker. Stroud meets a fellow inmate from Leavenworth and he is struck by his friend’s dogged loyalty to the prison rules. Harvey trains his inmates like he would train animals; he “rewards” the inmates for good behavior.