Robert Stroud was a convicted murderer, later to become a famous ornithologist and author, who was known as “the birdman of Alcatraz” for his work in diagnosing bird diseases. A movie starring the great actor Burt Lancaster was made about Stroud’s life which was – take a guess – titled The Birdman of Alcatraz.
Lancaster was an actor who simultaneously exuded strength and gentleness. He was also quite handsome and female fans were devoted to him. Just like Cary Grant, Lancaster had been a circus acrobat and his body and movements showed this even as he aged. His portrayal of Stroud was brilliant and earned him an Academy Award nomination as best actor. His was a riveting performance.
Except Burt Lancaster’s performance had little to do with the real Robert Stroud. The real Stroud was like the Japanese bird monster Rodan to a pretty songbird who was Lancaster’s Stroud. Burt Lancaster’s Stroud was indeed strong in many ways and did challenge authority when it could be shown (in the film) that such authority was abusive.
In real life Robert Stroud was a psychopathic murderer, an unapologetic and vicious pimp, and a lover of chaos and struggle. He constantly fought and badgered the people he met and in prison he was no different; in fact, he might have been worse. You could say he was the top bird of prison fights, physical ones and verbal ones. His face was the sneer, not the smile.
Stroud didn’t like authority, that’s true; he also didn’t seem to like anyone at all. But he loved to argue and fight with fellow prisoners, with the prison guards and with the administrators. He even murdered a prison guard! This was not a Burt Lancaster type of man; women would not be fans of his. Homicidal pimps are certainly not good role models.
Stroud spent most of his prison career in solitary confinement. The other inmates hated him; they also feared him because of his mercurial personality. You never knew when an explosion would occur and they occurred often enough to keep everyone near him on their toes. In fact, had people near him been birds, they would have taken to the air.
Yes, we do owe this man a “thank you” for his groundbreaking work with birds. His books have been a great help for veterinarians and birders too; but we shouldn’t let a movie whitewash the awful facts. The prison psychiatrist labeled him a psychopath and indeed he seems to have been one.
The movie was good but the man was for the birds.
Frank Scoblete’s web site is www.frankscoblete.com. His books are available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, kindle, e-books and at bookstores.