Burt Lancaster reteams with John Frankenheimer, starring as the title character, Robert E. Stroud. Sentenced to a dozen years in prison for killing a man in 1909, he loses any chance for parole by stabbing another prisoner. Incarcerated in Leavenworth, he adds to his problems by killing a prison guard for refusing to let his mother (Thelma Ritter) visit him and is sentenced to death. His mother begs Mrs. Woodrow Wilson to intercede, and the president commutes Stroud's sentence to life in isolation, under the gaze of the harsh warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden). One day in the isolation yard he comes across a wounded sparrow, nurses it back to health, and eventually teaches it to perform tricks. With the departure of Shoemaker, Stroud is allowed to have more birds in his cell and begins a study of them. As the years pass, he becomes an expert on caged birds, finally writing a book on the diseases to which they are susceptible. After he wins a prize in a magazine competition, he receives a visit from Stella Johnson (Betty Field), who suggests they start a business manufacturing avian medicine. Backed by an outstanding cast, Lancaster gives one of his finest performances in this moving account of a vicious killer's spiritual rebirth.
Shooting locations: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay, and San Francisco, CA.
Actor Leo Penn is the father of actor Sean Penn.
Director John Frankenheimer wanted to do the project at CBS while he was on staff there, but a representative from the Bureau of Prisons intimidated the network, preventing the director from doing it there.