I Finally Watched Birdman of Alcatraz

I’m 53 years old and last night I finally watched Birdman of Alcatraz. The movie was released in 1962. That’s the year I turned six. It must have made quite an impression on folks because people were still talking about it when I was in Jr. High.

In case you aren’t familiar with this older movie, it’s about a man, Robert Stroud, who killed someone and because of that went to federal prison. (It happened in Alaska before it was a state, so there was no state system to deal with such things.) At the beginning of the movie he seems to have no sense of the reality of other people. They are only objects, not beings with thoughts and feelings. In his mind, he’s the only ‘real’ person who exists.

One day he finds a baby bird and begins to care for it in his cell. Eventually, he has lots of birds, other prisoners have birds in their cells, too, and a bunch of these birds get sick. They have a disease that there is no cure for, so Stroud begins to do a lot of reading and experimenting. He finds the cure. Actually, he became a pretty famous ornithologist and even published a couple of books.

What I found so interesting about this movie was that as he cared for the birds, he softened up. Near the end he talks to a young man about hope and life. Wow. What a radical difference from his earlier behavior! And all from tending to little birds? And from reading and learning, too. Education, you know. Hm.

I wondered what the truth was so I looked him up. According to what I read, when the book and movie were made some of the facts were changed, most likely to make the story flow more easily. That’s to be expected.

Some other things were changed, too, though. I noticed that in 1943, after he had his experience tending birds and becoming a self-taught ornithologist, he was evaluated by a psychiatrist who came to the conclusion that he was a psychopath. Now, that sounds like the man at the beginning of the movie. Rather than what he was really like, (there is more about that on the link above) we are given a character that we are supposed to feel sympathy for who never really existed. He never gets parole and, well, gee, he became such a nice guy. Did the author of the book, Thomas E. Gaddis, ever visit Robert Stroud when he was writing the story? I can’t find anything to indicate that he did. If he never spent time talking with him he would have had access to facts about his case, but not to his personality. I wondered how he came to such conclusions about him being a changed man who we are supposed to pity because he’s so misunderstood and mistreated by the system?

Then it dawned on me that this was written back when the popular theory was that criminals were produced as a result of a bad environment and a lack of education. This was the old nature vs. nurture deal with a bit of ‘blank slate’ tossed in. Nurture was winning. It was thought that if the environment was changed and a criminal was educated it would change their whole psyche. Good loving environment + education = good person. I guess Gaddis assumed the theory was correct and came to his own conclusions about a man going from killer to compassionate caring person because of his experiences with the birds and because of the education he gained. What Robert Stroud really was, was a psychopath who was violent his entire life and who also happened to be very intelligent. His IQ was 134. This info didn’t fit the popular theory of the causes and cure for criminal behavior.

You know what? I think this theory is based on a material view of man. I think it’s so weird that at a time when we were in the thick of the Cold War, and we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the atheistic Soviets so we put the words “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance, our prison system was being operated on the premise that man is what he is because of his environment. This view of man denies the spiritual condition of man’s nature and also the remedy that God has provided. How strange.