Blu-Ray Review – Birdy

Birdy is an Alan Parker film, made at the height of his run in the 1980s. He was from the generation of British filmmakers as Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne, directors who cut their teeth on advertisements and got into filmmaking in the 1970s, when they quickly became the darlings of Hollywood. Birdy was Parker’s follow-up to Pink Floyd: The Wall—he did those two films, Angel Heart and Mississippi Burning in the space of about six years, a pretty wide range of unique films.

Birdy was based on a novel by William Wharton. It was Wharton’s first novel, published when he was 53. He still is not a particularly well-known writer, but Birdy and A Midnight Clear were both made into films, and they have their fans as books as well. Oddly, many of his books have only been published in Polish. Both are fictionalised accounts of the author’s experiences in World War II, updated for the film Birdy to Vietnam.

It’s a weird movie, which is what makes it so good. It centres on two boys in the early 60s: one is Birdy, played by Matthew Modine, and the other is Al, played by Nick Cage. It’s still one of Cage’s best performances. Birdy’s hobby is catching pigeons for his aviary, and he has dreams about flying. There’s obviously something unusual about Birdy (nowadays someone might say it’s Asperger’s). Vietnam happens, and Birdy gets drafted, while Al enlists. It isn’t a pleasant experience for either of them.

It’s all told in a flashback fashion, with Birdy in a mental hospital post-discharge. Both boys have been damaged by the war, and showing that is the core of what the film’s about. What’s odd about it is that it is a realist movie, but with occasional poetic, surrealist bits that are nevertheless grounded in reality. There are some amazing flying sequences through the streets of 1950s Philadelphia, which were really hard to do at that time, and which were accomplished using a SkyCam. It was the first film to use one; previously they were mainly used for American football matches. Its creator was Garrett Brown, who also developed the SteadiCam, one of the most important innovations in cinema.

Both young actors were at the top of their game, and it was the first time Cage showed that he was more than just Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew. Parker was a good choice as director too, as there are some weird parallels with The Wall, as both centre on a damaged man who retreats into a fantasy world. In the book, the story is mainly carried by Birdy’s internal monologue, so making that cinematic was a balancing act. It’s one of the better anti-war movies of the era, and one of the great Alan Parker films. It also features Peter Gabriel’s first score as a composer, which is based on instrumental versions of songs from his albums.

The disc includes a new interview with Modine, where he talks about the movie at last, an interview with the screenwriters, and an archival interview with Peter Gabriel. The appreciation of author William Wharton, his book and the film by Keith Gordon, director and screenwriter of A Midnight Clear, includes some interesting anecdotes. Also here is No Hard Feelings, another Parker film from 1976, the theatrical trailer, image gallery, and a selection of items from Modine’s personal collection. An accompanying booklet includes archival and new essays.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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