William Wharton was already a successful impressionist painter (under his birth name Albert du Aime) when he published his first novel, Birdy, in 1979 at the age of 53. The book drew on his own experiences: he was badly wounded in World War II, and he kept canaries all his life (he started with 250 when he was 17). The book became a best seller, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and won a National Book Award. Wharton continued to paint ("not thinking of myself as a writer gives me the freedom to be one," he told the Times of London) while also continuing to draw on his rich memories and dreams for subsequent novels.
Under the direction of London-born Alan Parker, the film version drew as many accolades as the book, earning Parker the Jury Grand Prize and a nomination for the Golden Palm at Cannes as well as the audience award at the Warsaw International Film Festival. (Wharton's books have always been particularly popular in Poland for some reason.) As the troubled Birdy and his friend Al, respectively, Matthew Modine and Nicholas Cage had important roles early in their careers that put them at the forefront of young actors in the 1980s.
Some aspects of Wharton's novel didn't make it intact into Birdy. For instance, his voluminous discussions of canary life have been compared to Melville's treatises on whales in Moby Dick fascinating in print, but certainly not the stuff of riveting filmmaking. Parker, to his credit, does find some effective visual correlatives, filling the film with animals and studying them in motion, including amazing footage of tiny canaries being hatched, without giving them speaking lines as Wharton does in the book, within Birdy's fantasy.
Some reviewers noted it was unnecessary to update the story from its original World War II setting to the Vietnam era, but the change doesn't do much to alter the story; this isn't really a movie about war and its aftermath as much as it's the "unspeakable, unrecognizable terrors of coming of age," according to New York Times film critic Vincent Canby.
The evocative cinematography was done by Michael Seresin, who worked with Parker before on Bugsy Malone (1976), Midnight Express (1978), Fame (1980), and Shoot the Moon (1982). They have worked together four more times since. Seresin is also known for his work on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).
Much of Birdy was shot on location at various sites in Philadelphia, as well as the state hospital in Santa Clara, California. The movie cost $12 million to produce, and although not a box office hit on its release, it has become something of a cult favorite.
The soundtrack is by acclaimed musician-composer Peter Gabriel, who was then at the height of his career. According to some sources, Gabriel composed and recorded the score in a single weekend, basing much of it on songs from his third and fourth solo albums.
Two other William Wharton novels were adapted into films: Dad (1989), starring Jack Lemmon and Ted Danson, and A Midnight Clear (1992), a World War II drama with Peter Berg, Ethan Hawke, Kevin Dillon, and Gary Sinise. Wharton died in 2008 at the age of 82.
Director: Alan Parker
Producers: David Manson, Alan Marshall
Screenplay: Sandy Kroopf, Jack Behr, based on the novel by William Wharton
Cinematography: Michael Seresin
Editing: Gerry Hambling
Art Direction: W. Stewart Campbell, Armin Ganz
Original Music: Peter Gabriel
Cast: Matthew Modine (Birdy), Nicholas Cage (Al), John Harkins (Major Weiss), Sandy Baron (Mr. Columbato), Karen Young (Hannah Rourke), Bruno Kirby (Renaldi).
C-120m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Rob Nixon