Although George L. Wellman’s A History of Alcatraz Island 1853-2008, describes Robert Stroud as “a murderer that many considered a psychopath,” Burt Lancaster’s Stroud in The Birdman of Alcatraz is depicted as a down to earth, honest man who actually has a few true friends. His three most prominent friends, as shown in the movie, are his mother, his fellow inmate Feto, and his wife Stella. Stroud has a caring, almost loving relationship with these three people. We observe a different kind of friendship, however, in his interactions with Warden Shoemaker and the main guard; these relationships are based on respect rather than care.
Throughout the movie, Stroud’s face is normally blank apart from when he is interacting with his mother, Stella, or Feto. These three characters seem to bring out a different person. Stroud and his mother have an interesting relationship because it is loving but also fiercely possessive, so much so that this causes a complete break in their relationship when she becomes threatened by Stroud’s relationship with Stella. This second relationship begins as a business partnership, but evolves into what might be interpreted as love. Even though Stroud is a lifer who could never carry on a true relationship with Stella, she stays dedicated to him and his cause all the way to Alcatraz. Feto, on the other hand, while he can be seen as nothing more than the inmate next door, embodies a strong role in Stroud’s life because he acts as the tough friend who is caring but still presents himself as the opposition when needed.
With Warden Shoemaker and the guard*, Stroud has a different relationship. He respects them, even when he doesn’t necessarily agree with them, stays completely civil with them, and does not put up a front around them. When the guard breaks protocol and gives him the crate, Stroud begins to respect him as an individual rather than the figure who guards his cell. This, in turn, encourages the guard to trust him, forming an odd sort of friendship. The Warden and Stroud, however, are quite confrontational, but over the years a bond of respect forms, even though the discords do not diminish. At the end of the movie, Shoemaker trusts him enough as to tell a guard that: “even though he’s been a thorn in [his] side for 35 years… he’s never lied to [him].” In order to admit this about an opponent, Warden Shoemaker has to step over his ego and fear in order to have complete confidence in Stroud’s claim.
So although Robert Stroud, the real man, may be a very disagreeable character, the Stroud portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the movie is painted as a solid, sometimes hotheaded, decent man, because of the friendships in his life. The friendships he has complete his person and make him a likable character in the eyes of the audience.
*(Bull? Hadly? Can’t remember his name.)