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
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