British director Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was the great master of suspense films. His 1963 classic, The Birds, is haunting and perplexing. I saw it as a boy, and ever since I’ve wondered what birds could do to us if they had a mind to. As seagulls were hovering over me at a Florida beach recently, I remembered the film. I was hoping they did not. Not long after, my wife and I watched The Birds on a lark.
You may know the plot: various birds—mostly seagulls and crows—in a small coastal town, Bodega Bay, California, begin attacking people for no apparent reason. The action starts when a seagull dive-bombs the beautiful San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippy Hedren) and bites her perfectly coifed head, drawing blood. In the love story that’s threaded amidst the tension and terror, Melanie had come to the town to bring two love birds to lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). The seagull’s assault is inexplicable.
The inexplicable builds. A seagull crashes against a door. Chickens stop eating their feed. Birds attack a children’s party. The birds get nastier and nastier until they launch an all-out attack on a class of school children, their teacher, and Melanie as they all flee for their lives down a long street. The birds then take on the whole town in a terrifying scene. Melanie seeks refuge in a telephone booth as the birds crash into the glass. Now she is caged.
It is Eerie
The plot is eerie for two reasons. What is horrifying is not simply the bird attacks, but the unlikelihood of the threat. Who expects birds to go rogue? My parakeet once attacked me and somehow survived my father’s counterattack. But the damage was minimal to either of us. We know that bears attack people. Alligators attack people. Even the ungainly moose will attack if provoked. Mighty raptors may be fearful, but they do not star in this film, nor are they known for coordinated attacks on humans. They have other prey. It’s all in the order of nature. Who would fear seagulls and crows?
Another eerie element is that the enigmatic birds attack randomly. They do not relentlessly assault the featherless bipeds. Perhaps the most terrifying scene is when Mitch, his mother, sister, and Melanie are attacked as they sequester in a house that Mitch has fortified for a bird assault. The birds nearly peck through doors to get into the house. Melanie is almost killed when she opens the door to the attic where birds are lurking. (That scene took three days to film. Hedren was bitten on the lower eyelid by a real bird, which stopped the filming for a week while she recovered physically and psychologically.) The eeriness is increased by the film’s lack of a soundtrack and by the synthesized sounds of the birds, making them sound bird-like and ghost-like.
Spoiler alert: In the final scene, Mitch, Melanie, and the rest leave their bird-bombed home with throngs of birds sitting and perched all around them. Mitch is gently bitten a few times, but nothing more. They all—including the caged love birds—make it to the car and drive off. There is no resolution or explanation or musical accompaniment. The end.
Religious and Philosophical Questions
The Birds has no overt religious meaning, but a few theological themes can be discerned. In one scene, Melanie sits outside a schoolhouse, pensively smoking, while birds menace nearby. The viewer sees a church building behind her with a cross on the roof. Shortly after, the birds launch their massive, coordinated attack on the town. Why did Hitchcock put that church in the scene?
During the avian assault, townspeople gather in a local diner to regroup. A drunk seated at the counter proclaims, “It’s the end of the world!” and quotes a few passages of divine judgment rom Ezekial, chapter six. The biblical context is that of God declaring judgment against Israel because of her false worship and evil actions. The unnamed drunk is then rebuked by a waitress who quotes a Bible verse against drunkenness.
The film has several layers of philosophical meaning. Hitchcock’s filming of the church is purposeful. It seems to ask, “Where is God in all this? There is a church, but where is God?” None of the terrified victims of the bird attacks pray or call out to God for help. No clergymen or religious person appears, except the Bible-quoting drunk. Is he merely an inebriated crank or an ersatz prophet?
Read one way, the film is nihilistic. What happens is absurd in the sense of the meaningless misfortunes of Camus’s novel, The Plague. Mitch’s little sister asks him why the birds are attacking, but he has no answer. They have declared war on the town, but no one can read their minds. Evil strikes as people are killed, injured, and terrified. At other times, the birds are quiescent. The two love birds Melanie gave Mitch remain in their cages throughout the film and are taken along when the family escapes by car in the end.
Read another way, the attacks are a judgment by the birds against their fellow creatures, who have caged, enslaved, and eaten them for centuries. The attacks start after Melanie brings the caged love birds to town. That act might have sparked the revolt, symbolizing human oppression and domination over the birds. The caged birds wreaked no havoc, but they had no opportunity to flock and plot with the assassins, either. Just before the all-out blitzkrieg on the hapless town, an older woman who is an amateur ornithologist lectures Melanie about birds not being aggressors; it is we humans who have abused them. The ornithologist is quickly refuted by the avian apocalypse.
A Theological Context
We can put this film into a larger theological context if we are allowed a few more biblical references that what Hitchcock allowed. The Creator gave humans dominion over the animal world (Genesis 1:26-28) and they were never forbidden from killing and eating animals. After the judgment of the flood, God says that the “fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands” (Gen 9:2). But sometimes we fall into their hands, as this film highlights, albeit in a far-fetched manner.
Animals were sacrificed in Israel’s religious rituals of atonement. Nevertheless, Jesus said that God cares for “the birds of the air” even though he cares more for people (Matthew 6:26). The Fourth of The Ten Commandments required that animals be given their rest along with people (Exodus 20:8-11). Proverbs 12:10 teaches, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercies of the wicked are cruel.”
Nature has been disrupted by the entry of sin into God’s good world at the fall (Genesis 3). The Apostle Paul wrote that the whole universe will be in travail until it is ultimately restored by God (Romans 8:18-23). That restoration will end all human-animal hostility in a new world of inter-species peace.
The wolf will live with the lamb,Isaiah 11:6-9
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
That time is not yet nor is The Birds is not for everybody, and especially not for children. There is already plenty of suspense and terror in our broken world without resorting to suspenseful cinema, one may judge. Nevertheless, one can enjoy the artistry and suspense of this classic film and ponder the philosophical and theological questions that it raises concerning our relationship to birds and to the larger animal kingdom.