Here we have an anti-war film, set in the Vietnam era, that for the most part takes place stateside and without much reference to the war. The story centers on the history of two traumatized soldiers, who were close friends before their duty in Nam. Each one is coping with what we today would refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) . One has been badly burned in the war and is worried that he won’t recognize himself when the bandages come off, the other has retreated into the fantasy world of flying and birds that he was obsessed with before being in a helicopter crash. The story involves the ability of their friendship to pull them back into the world.
This was a movie given a limited release in Los Angeles in late 1984, to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. It was ultimately a Grand Prize winner at the Cannes film festival in 1985, but it never got widespread distribution. In fact as far as I can tell it only made it onto three screens in the U.S. and it did about one and a half million dollars at the box office. Amazingly enough, I actually saw it in its three week run in Westwood. I dragged my wife across town when we had a holiday break and we saw it in a matinee screening. I doubt that she will remember much about the movie except the final line, which we have quoted to each other with the same tone of Matthew Modine for thirty years now.
“Birdy” is the second Matthew Modine film on this project. Way back in March he had a double role in the “Hotel New Hampshire” . In that film he was a sexual predator, in this movie he is far from being a predator but his character does have some sexual hangups. Nicolas Cage appears for the second time on the project. After dropping back to the 1940s in “Racing with the Moon“, he moves forward only a few years to the early 1960s for this film. He has another film on the list that will be coming up soon, where he ends up in the 1920s. Why he is cast in period pieces at the start of his career is not quite clear but both he and Modine are solid in this film.
When we first encounter “Al”, Cage’s character, he is a high school kid with wild hair playing baseball in a Philadelphia sandlot game. He hits the ball into the yard of an adjoining house and it is there that he first encounters the guy he will call “Birdy”. Al has a confrontation with “Birdy” over a misunderstanding and they end up becoming friends despite the very clear difference between them. Al is an outgoing athletic type, confident with women and interested in making some money. “Birdy” is not exactly an introvert, but he is one of those kids that everyone knows is a little different. He is mostly quiet and totally absorbed in his observation of birds and the carrier pigeons he is training.
The story of their friendship is told through a series of flashbacks, sometimes from Al’s point of view and sometimes from Birdy’s. Al has actually been summoned to the military institution where Birdy has been committed. It seems after the crash and being MIA for a month, he was found uncommunicative and withdrawn into a posture of a roosting pigeon. Al has been brought to the facility to try and extract Birdy from his near comatose fixation on these awkward positions. Al knows immediately what Birdy is doing but fears saying too much the the psychiatrist in charge for fear that Birdy might be permanently institutionalized.
Cage does all of the contemporary scenes, masked by bandages, while Modine remains mute and at times naked and sitting on the floor of the room he is locked up in. Cage is attempting to reach Birdy by reminding him of their youthful adventures. Neither has a fantasic home life. Al’s Dad is an abusive garbage collector who Al can never stand up to. Birdy’s mother is the shrew that would never return any of the balls the kids hit into her yard. Both of them are a little rebellious as a consequence. Al’s form of rebellion is the typical teenage stuff, getting into fights, making out with girls, and skirting the law. Birdy is unconventional, he keeps pigeons and studies the flight of birds and fantasizes about being a bird himself. When he talks Al into putting on a pigeon feathered costume to go collecting birds at a local factory, he ends up falling off the building but feels for a moment as if he were flying rather than falling.
The two of them look ridiculous in their get ups but only Al cares. The accident leads to his mother closing up his pigeon coop and Al and Birdy find other ways to employ their energy. Their pour some effort into rebuilding an old car, which ends up with Al’s dad selling it and Birdy standing up to him in a way that Al never could. This is one of the places where we can see the determination of Birdy. He is a Milquetoast most of the time but he becomes a firebrand.
The most memorable image from the movie and the basis of the main poster for the film, is their attempt to get Birdy into flight using a contraption he created after studying the wings of birds meticulously. It fuels Birdy’s obsession with being a bird and he begins to loose touch with reality at this point. So the PTSD is really causing him to withdraw into the elaborate fantasy he was working on before each of the boys was drafted into the service. Al can see what is happening and he engages in long stretches of one way conversation in an attempt to bring Birdy out of it. Internally, Birdy responds with his own memories and that is how the story is fleshed out.
The structure of the movie manages to overcome the two person nature of the asylum sequences by showing their home lives and adventures. We see that Birdy is uninterested in female sexual companionship. His dream state involves a moment when he imagins coupling with his beloved canary. An episode that creepily ends with a wet dream, sealing the deal on his own psychological hangups.
The dream of flight is visualized at one point with the very first skycam sequence in film. The camera being floated between four crane locations really does produce an almost euphoric visual sequence of flight that is pretty convincing. One of the best scenes in the movie involves Birdy describing how a bird’s feathers work while his ornithopter flies around the classroom. We can see the passion on his face.
Of course the dramatic scenes mostly involve the two leads in the sanitarium room where as the lead psychiatrist is losing patience, Al is desperately trying to find a way to pull Birdy back. At the same time Cage’s character is forced to consider his own traumas and try to cope with them as well. The late Bruno Kirby is a conscientious objector, serving as an orderly. Familiar character actor Marshall Bell has a scene as another victim of stress but one who is coping with it in an interesting way. Rock star Peter Gabriel supplied the percussive score for the film, punctuating many dramatic scenes with ethereal and forceful music. Director Alan Parker, who made “Mississippi Burning”, “Midnight Express” and a personal favorite of mine, “The Commitments“, put this film together and managed to get a high degree of production value for a movie that has largely been forgotten (if anyone was ever aware of it in the first place).