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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness



Birdy was released in 1984 and directed by Alan Parker. It won the Jury’s Special Grand Prix in 1985 at the Cannes Film Festival and is based on the novel of the same name by William Wharton. It tells the story of two friends, Birdy and Al, played by Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage respectively, who are conscripted to fight in Vietnam, where they both suffer different degrees of mental and physical trauma.  The film alternates between scenes after their return from the war, which take place in the military psychiatric hospital where Birdy is a patient, and the back-story of the friends’ early life together, told chronologically in flashbacks.


These flashbacks reveal the gradual development of Birdy’s extremely bizarre behaviour, involving his preoccupation with birds and flying, which is firmly in place before he goes to Vietnam. In contrast, the scenes in the psychiatric hospital reveal how both Birdy and Al have been affected by their experiences in the war. The film offers a perfect opportunity to consider the issues of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in both characters, and the development of catatonia in Birdy. 

The Film

The film begins after the friends have returned from the war and are both in separate military hospitals. Birdy is seen squatting on the floor of a bare cell looking up at the high window, in a position suggestive of a bird. Al is returning from surgery to a ward with his face in bandages, the result of severe burns requiring skin grafts. Al is soon sent to visit Birdy, at the request of Birdy’s mother, in the hope that their friendship will help to entice Birdy out of his bizarre unresponsive, mute state. Al learns that Birdy was missing in action for a month in Vietnam before being found and that he has not talked since then. Al starts trying to communicate with his old friend using their shared memories. At this point we see the first flashback from their youth, in which Al catches sight of Birdy squatting high in the branches of a tree, and learn that the neighbourhood children have given him the nickname ‘Bird Boy’ or ‘the weird kid’. As the back-story progresses, Al and Birdy’s unlikely friendship unfolds as Birdy’s singular passion for birds and flight draws Al in to many daring and sometimes dangerous ventures.

In the scenes at the psychiatric hospital, Al becomes more and more frustrated by Birdy’s lack of response, and his own need to reconnect with his friend becomes increasingly apparent. Al chooses to withhold the important information about Birdy’s background from Dr Weiss, the psychiatrist, wanting to keep the things that they did together private. The flashbacks begin to reveal the development of Birdy’s increasingly strange and abnormal behaviour as he is seen trying to live in the pigeon coop like his birds, and later when he strips naked to sleep in the large birdcage with his female canary, whilst he experiences some erotic fantasies centered on his pet. As well as this, Birdy’s social isolation and lack of interest in any intimate human sexual relationship is brilliantly portrayed when Birdy’s parents force him to go to the school prom with a date. It later becomes clear that Birdy believes that he will fly one day, using his own muscle power, and that he can learn to talk to his pet birds. In fact in one conversation with Al, Birdy states that he saw himself fly one night and believed that he was a bird.

As Al becomes more angry and agitated by his inability to connect with Birdy, we learn that he suffers from flashbacks of the events that injured him, which occur during his sleep and that wake him, drenched in sweat. He doesn’t want anyone to know that he is suffering in this way, but it becomes clear that Al is struggling to maintain his own mental health. After having no success in helping Birdy to speak again, Dr Weiss threatens to send Al away, but Al makes one final request of the psychiatrist, that he hopes might trigger Birdy’s memory of their past friendship. By this time, Al is desperate for Birdy’s friendship and conversation and the breakthrough comes as Al tells him, in tears, how awful he is feeling. As Al sits holding Birdy close to him on the floor of his cell, he is astonished when Birdy says “Al sometimes you’re so full of s**t”. When Al asks him why he decided to talk, he replied “I didn’t, it just happened”. The ending of the film must be left for the viewer to experience.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

This film provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the development of a catatonic schizophrenic illness in a young man, from his pre-morbid schizoid personality to his episode of mute posturing in the pose of a bird, triggered by his experiences of war. It also offers a platform to consider the effects of traumatic war experiences on both young men.

As catatonic schizophrenia has become less common in our society, perhaps because there is earlier intervention and effective drug treatment for schizophrenia now available, Birdy provides a very important opportunity for students of all mental health professions to gain an understanding of the condition. Catatonia is defined as a disturbance of motor behaviour that may have a psychological or neurological cause. In its most well known form, the individual may remain fixed and immobile in a bizarre and uncomfortable position for a lengthy period of time lasting days or even longer. It can also present with agitated hyperkinetic behaviour. Catatonia, as a symptom, is associated with a variety of mental disorders, only one of which is schizophrenia. Other conditions associated with the symptom are brain disease, mood disorders, drugs, alcohol and metabolic disturbances.

As outlined in the ICD-10 classification of mental disorders, the diagnosis of catatonic schizophrenia is indicated if there is pronounced psychomotor disturbance present, with a marked decrease in reactivity to the environment. Bizarre postures may be held for lengthy periods of time and mutism may be a feature. The other features of schizophrenia, such as delusions and hallucinations may also be present, but if a person is mute, this will not always be possible to assess at the time of presentation. The film provides a superb understanding of the importance that past history plays in unraveling the possible causes of mutism. Because Al withholds this important information from the psychiatrist, there is no possibility of Dr Weiss understanding the context in which Birdy has become unwell.

For further information about schizophrenia, the Royal College of Psychiatrists website has some useful pages.

Of particular interest in this film is the fact that the story is not just about Birdy’s mental illness, but also about the effects on Al of his traumatic experiences in Vietnam. He is seen to develop some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This provides an additional platform for considering the topic of PTSD, perhaps alongside a reading of the information at the Royal College of Psychiatrists website on the condition. The NHS choices website also has an informative video featuring the personal account of a victim of the 7th July London bomb blast.

I would recommend this film for anyone interested in general adult mental health and in particular for learning about the development of a schizophrenic illness.

•  Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Joyce Almeida.

•  Further information about Birdy is available at IMDB, as is a short trailer.


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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.