Burt Lancaster played the famous ‘Bird Man’ Robert Stroud, a man serving a life sentence at Alcatraz who takes comfort from birds (the feathered kind).
In 1912, Stroud – a tall, uneducated youth of 19 – was sent to prison for 12 years after being convicted of the manslaughter of a bartender who mauled his girlfriend.
Straining against the leash of prison discipline, Stroud forfeited any chance of parole by knifing a fellow inmate.
Transferred to Leavenworth he encountered warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) and a couple of tough guards (Neville Brand and Crahan Denton).
When the guards cancelled the visit of his mother, Elizabeth (Thelma Ritter), due to a violation of internal rules, Stroud stabbed and killed a guard and stood trial three times.
He was sentenced to be executed by the gallows, but his mother appealed to President Woodrow Wilson who commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.
Warden Shoemaker decided to keep Stroud in solitary confinement for the rest of his life.
An interest in birds absorbed him and he studied hard enough to become an authority on them and write a classic textbook about their diseases. He also learnt French and Latin and became an expert in prison law.
Though the movie moved public sympathy towards Stroud and letters were sent begging for his release, the film glossed over his villainy.
In fact, he killed two people in prison, wrote child pornography and complained to a parole hearing that he “had a lot of people left to kill”.
On 21 November 1963, Robert Stroud died at the Springfield Medical Center at the age of 73, having been incarcerated for the last 54 years of his life, of which 42 were spent in solitary confinement.
Robert Franklin Stroud