Birdy (1984): Alan Parker’s Lyrical Drama of Postwar Trauma, Starring Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine

Set after the Vietnam War, Alan Parker’s Birdy, starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, is a powerfully dramatic chronicle of postwar trauma.

Birdy
Birdy ver1.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The story concerns a boy, Birdy, (Matthew Modine) who develops a fascination with avian life. Years later, his boyhood friend (Cage), having suffered wartime injuries, returns to coax the adult Birdy out of his madness and back into the “real” world.

The film unfolds in a series of flashbacks.  Its present-day sections are set in a military mental hospital, where the vet tries to elicit some human response from his friend.  Birdy has finally transformed himself into one of the creatures of his dreams.  He stares at his friend with one eye, birdlike, and perches naked and motionless on the railing of his hospital bed.

These scenes are contrasted with glimpses of the younger, happy-go-lucky friend, whose inters are girls and weight-lifting, and the delicate, grinning Birdy, whose obsession has not yet drawn him away from human contact.  It ends in a combative scene.

Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr’s script is based on the novel by William Wharton, which interestingly is set in the era of WWII, rather than in Vietnam, as seen in the film. But the change of setting doesn’t compromise the tale’s complexity or coherence.

The movie is elevated by the performances of the two leads, Modine as the young man who transcends species boundaries (his attempts to fly are spellbinding), and Cage as the always affable and concerned buddy, by turns worried, frustrated, and persistent in his efforts.

Birdy was a commercial flop, grossing only $1.5 million in the US, against a considerable budget of $12 million. Part of the reason for it failure was Tri-Star cancelling a wide release scheduled for late January 1985, when the film did not get any award nominations during the limited run in December 1984.

Critical Status:

Birdy won the Special Jury Prize at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.

Cast

Birdy (Matthew Modine)

Al Columbato (Nicolas Cage)

Dr. Weiss (John Harkins)

Mr. Columbato (Sandy Baron)

Hanna Rourke (Karen Young)

Renaldi (Bruno Kirby)

Birdy’s Mother (Delores Sage)

Credits

Running time: 120 Minutes

Produced by Alam Marshall

Directed by Alan Parker

Music: Peter Gabriel