Color, 1984, 120 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Alan Parker
Starring Matthew Modine, Nicolas Cage, John Harkins, Sandy Baron, Karen Young, Bruno Kirby
Indicator (UK R0 HD), Sony (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Following the back to back success of Midnight Express and Fame, British director Alan Parker had carte blanche to tackle just about any projects he wanted in Hollywood. In what could never be termed selling out by anyone, he decided to hit audiences with two very dark films in 1982, Shoot the Moon and Pink Floyd: The Wall, and chase them down in 1984 with Birdy, a Vietnam-themed drama based on a 1978 World War II-set novel by William Wharton. Unfortunately the film preceded the huge 'Nam prestige movie wave that would come soon with Oliver Stone's Platoon and Parker's film ended up with a muted reception from audiences, but since then it has remained a fan favorite of those who discovered it on TV and home video.
Set in a hospital for injured Vietnam soldiers, the story takes place through the memories of the facially wounded Al (Cage) as he reflects via flashback to himself and doctors the years-long friendship he had between Birdy (Modine), a young man with a deep affinity for birds. Now at the same hospital under supervision for a mental disorder that has left him completely unresponsive to outside communication, Birdy had more trouble fitting in than Al as they shared several adventures involving bird aviaries, attempted flight, an auto theft, and attempted romance. Al believes he may be able to break through to Birdy and unravel what's going on in his head, but at what cost?
Superficially this might sound like a dour Vietnam drama crossed with Robert Altman's lunatic, flight-obsessed Brewster McCloud, but Birdy is actually something quite different and more uplifting than audiences probably expected. Parker was on a very hot creative streak here and proves to have a sense of warmth and mercy here that helps this stand apart from its peers and linger in the memory. The two very committed central performances certainly help, too, with Modine and Cage embodying their roles so thoroughly it's almost uncanny at times. The film also earns its place in the history books with the first film score composed by Peter Gabriel, who was working on So at the time and of course went on to glory scoring The Last Temptation of Christ. His subdued, fascinating instrumental score threw some fans for a loop upon its initial release, but the soundtrack itself has since become a bit of a cult favorite as well.
Despite its warm critical regard and importance within the filmographies of the people involved, Birdy somehow never had a single significant special feature developed for it until the 2019 U.K. Blu-ray release from Indicator-- who fortunately more than make up for it. (An MOD Blu-ray barely preceded it in the U.S. from Sony and isn't worth the trouble as it costs about the same and comes with zero extras.) The transfer is touted as a Parker-approved 2K restoration and looks as exquisite as you'd expect for a Sony-supplied HD transfer; the all-important black levels are much more dynamic and rich in the night scenes than the earlier DVD editions, and the often muted, cool color scheme looks accurate to the original theatrical presentation. The LPCM 2.0 English stereo audio is also very satisfying and has some nice separation effects for Gabriel's score as well as some jolting explosions in the final act. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.
A new audio commentary with Parker and the BFI’s Justin Johnson is a very welcome account of the film's creation as they chat about the source novel, the five-year age difference between the two leads, the process of getting the adaptation off the ground ever since the initial galleys went around, the extensive bird-training process that took months to prepare, and plenty more. In "The Abstraction of War" (24m23s), Modine discusses his own familial connections to Vietnam, the psychological research and self-examination he had to go through to understand the impact of war on the psyche, his previous Vietnam acting experience with Altman's Streamers, his original intention to audition for the role of Al, the funny back story behind the signature image that ended up on the film's poster, and his memories of working with Parker and Cage (with whom he bonded over Fatburger and Pink's in L.A.). In "Learning to Fly" (13m45s), screenwriters Jack Behr and Sandy Kroopf explain how they performed the daunting task of adapting a novel that many claimed couldn't be filmed, from the change in wars to the flashback structure that allowed them to crack the puzzle including a very difficult stream of consciousness section. "Peter Gabriel on Making the Music for Birdy" (6m42s) features the composer speaking (very softly) about the aspects that drew him to the film, the influence of Brian Eno, and the modes of classical music he integrated into his compositional process along with some new electronic innovations that had just come on the market. In "Bird Watching" (16m41s), filmmaker Keith Gordon talking about his own connection to Wharton's novels through his own war-related film, A Midnight Clear, and explains how the reclusive author's writing style lends itself to cinematic interpretation and reflects the pain he experienced in real life during and following World War II. The 1976 short No Hard Feelings (54m42s), a gritty and very sober depiction of love blossoming during the blitz on London by the Germans during World War II, marked a shift from TV commercials to narrative filmmaking for Parker and ended up being his calling card to bigger and better things when it was picked up to run along with his more high-profile war story for TV, The Evacuees. It's a fascinating missing piece in his career, particularly considering it wound up airing the same year as his first theatrical feature, the very different Bugsy Malone. Also included are the theatrical trailer, a gallery of promotional material (21 images), and 27 archival items from Modine's own collection. In the usual Indicator fashion, the insert booklet is a notable extra in itself complete with new liner notes by Frank Collins, Parker's written document of the making of the film, notes on No Hard Feelings by Jeff Billington, and critical reactions from the initial release.
Reviewed on November 10, 2019.