It is a fictionalized version of the life of Robert Stroud, a federal prison inmate and convicted murderer known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" because of his life with birds. In spite of the title, much of the action is set at Leavenworth prison where Stroud was jailed with his birds. When moved to Alcatraz he was not allowed to keep any pets.
This film includes examples of:
- The Alcatraz: Literal example. Stroud is eventually transferred there, a much more restrictive prison.
- Bittersweet Ending: Stroud is finally taken off "the Rock", and is determined to take what enjoyment he can from life, but remains incarcerated at the end of the film. (He died a year after its release, still in custody.)
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Stroud's Berserk Button. He kills a guard when he learns his mother was denied the right to visit him.
- Foregone Conclusion: All of his intellectual pursuits, business ventures and publicity at Leavenworth won't lead to release and whenever release is brought up we know it won't happen because we know, of course, that instead of being released he ends up in Alcatraz.
- HeelFace Turn: Over the course of the movie Stroud grows from a violent, anti-social thug into a soft-spoken and intellectual pacifist.
- Historical Villain Downgrade: Fellow inmates who knew Stroud remarked he was not a sweetheart but a Jerkass and vicious, unrepentant killer who resented Lancaster's portrayal of him. (He also may have been a pedophile, based on some porn he wrote that involved children.)
- I Gave My Word: After a prison riot, Stroud tells the warden that the prisoners have no firearms. The warden accepts his word, because he has never lied before.
- Institutional Apparel: Discussed. The warden of Alcatraz mentions the switch from black and white stripes to jumpsuits as one of the changes he was able to help push through.
- Luxury Prison Suite: Not a typical example, but as Stroud becomes further invested in scientific pursuits greater liberties are made for him, culminating in having the wall in his cell knocked down to allow him to use the neighboring cell as a laboratory.
- MacGyvering: Stroud turns a glass bottle into a water dish, an apple box into a bird cage and is even able to MacGyver up new cures for diseases. He takes the trope to such an extent that he is able to go into the veterinary supply business and becomes the world's foremost expert on avian health.
- My Beloved Smother: Stroud's mother is intensely protective of her son, so much so that she personally appeals to the First Lady to save him from execution, despite the fact that Stroud himself doesn't really care. It works. Then when she jealously begs him to abandon his wife he accuses her of wanting to keep him alive in prison and dependent on her for the outside world. She takes this as her abandoning him and after she publicly denounces him he burns his photo of her and says she is dead to him.
- The Narrator: Edmond O'Brien as Thomas E. Gaddis, who wrote the book the film was based on and advocated for Stroud's parole.
- The Old Convict: Stroud in the latter half of the movie.
- Pet the Dog: Pet the little bird.
- Playing Gertrude: Thelma Ritter was only eleven years older than Burt Lancaster.
- Prison Riot: Happens during his stay at Alcatraz, one so severe the Coast Guard is called in. Stroud is able to defuse the entire situation with words.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: See Historical Villain Downgrade above—the real Stroud was in fact an expert on birds who wrote an important book on birds while in prison, but also happened to be a vicious murderer and The Sociopath, certainly not the sympathetic character portrayed by Lancaster. Not to mention that he was really "The Birdman of Leavenworth", as he was not allowed to keep and study birds at Alcatraz, then one of the hardest prisons in the American penal system.