I was channel surfing Saturday afternoon in between watching college football games when I came across the last 30 minutes of the 1962 movie “The Birdman of Alcatraz” starring Burt Lancaster in the title role.
If you’re not familiar with this flick, it’s the story of Robert Stroud, a real-life convicted murderer who spent 54 years of his life serving time in the McNeil Island, Leavenworth, and Alcatraz Federal prisons.
While serving his life sentence, Stroud found a nest of sparrows in the prison yard, which he took into his cell, where he succeeded in raising the birds to adulthood. To make a long story short, he continued to raise birds during his time in prison and, based on the experience he gained, wrote and published two books on ornithology.
Lancaster portrayed Stroud as if the convict’s years behind bars had rehabilitated him into a saintly philosopher-humanitarian. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Stroud was one of the most violent and unrepentant criminals in America. While serving his initial sentence after being convicted of manslaughter, Stroud assaulted another inmate with knife and eventually killed a prison guard in a separate knife attack.
During a particularly memorable parole hearing, he actually told the parole board that he hoped to be released from prison because he still had a lot of other people who he wanted to kill.
By the way, while serving time at Alcatraz, Stroud was not allowed to have birds in his cell. No pets of any type were permitted on the Rock. All of his work with birds had occurred while he was in Leavenworth.
Wouldn’t that make him the “Birdman of Leavenworth“?
All of this causes me to question that phrase which Hollywood often tacks on to it’s productions: “Based on a True Story“.
In the case of Robert Stroud, he was a prisoner, he did serve time at Alcatraz, and he did work with birds while in prison; but very little else of the story presented on film has anything at all to do with truth.
A few months ago, Hollywood released another movie, “Lawless” starring Shia LeBeouf, which was heavily promoted with television commercials purporting the film to the based on, you guessed it, a “true story“.
One evening after viewing yet another commercial advertising “Lawless“, I decided to do a little research and find out just what specific truth this movie was based upon.
It turns out that the movie is the adaptation of a novel. A novel? Unless the world of literature has redefined some of its basic terminology, a novel is a work of fiction.
I continued my search for the “truth” behind the movie and learned that the author of the novel had based his work on often told family stories concerning his grandfather and two uncles who had been bootleggers during the Depression.
Once again, I guess you could make an argument that the movie was “based on a true story”.
I’m willing to accept that the author did have a grandfather and it’s not beyond question that he could have also had two uncles as well. But the rest of the story? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
All of this makes me wonder why “King Kong” wasn’t billed as being based on a true story.
After all, we all know that gorillas are real.