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Written by Timothy Sexton
"It's the end of the world."
There it is. The events of The Birds summed up succinctly and to the point. This is Hitchcock’s most apocalyptic film. Actually, that’s not saying much because Hitch’s films were never particularly apocalyptic despite some plots that seemed to put the very future of the freedom world on the line. The Birds is one of the most apocalyptic movies Hollywood ever put out that wasn’t the cheaper attraction slotted into a double feature. What separates The Birds from most of those end of the world B-movies is not so much that Hitchcock’s direction is so obviously more artistic or that the dialogue is less cheesy. No, what really makes The Birds stand out from the crowd of all the other apocalyptic movies that came before it is that it except for this particular quote, the film never presents the attack of the birds as anything other than a very localized bit of weirdness in this one small town. Until the end, that is.
“I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn't stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?”
Mrs. Bundy is an unpaid, part-time ornithologist. Meaning that she studies birds as a hobby. Of course, not getting paid to do something in no way impacts one’s ability to become an expert on the subject and to all outward appearances Mrs. Bundy is an expert on bird behavior. So when she warns that the stranger who has just explained witnessing a type of behavior among birds that is so unimaginable as to carry the potential for the human species to be on the losing end of a battle for supremacy on the planet cannot possibly be taken seriously or else was utterly mistaken in what she claims to have witnessed, most people would probably side with her expertise on the issue. This is a genuine and definitively authentic example of irony. Because the audience has also borne witness to the behavior the strange woman describes, we know something that Mrs. Bundy either does not or does know, but is too terrified to accept: the woman is telling the truth. Which, if Mrs. Bundy knows herself, also makes this quote an example of foreshadowing as well as irony.
“I think we're in real trouble. I don't know how or why this started, but I know it's here and we'd be crazy to ignore it ... The bird war, the bird attack, plague—call it what you like. They're amassing out there someplace, and they'll be back. You can count on that.”
The possibility exists that Mrs. Bundy is merely in a deep state of denial. The likely boyfriend of that stranger telling tales about birds acting contrary to their nature (should the two of them survive the bird attack) is most assuredly not a resident of that state. Well before it become apparent to everyone else that what is taking place here is absolutely apocalyptic, steadfast Mitch is convinced. Quite a time he has had with the cool blonde stranger up to this point, but here is a man who recognizes a threat to the natural of order of things when he sees it. And when he recognizes it, he doesn’t seek escape through denial of the inevitable.
“What have you got to be sorry about? My mother? Don't waste your time. She ditched us when I was 11 and ran off with some hotel man in the east. You know what a mother's love is.”
Melanie is that cool blonde with tall tale of seeing birds behaving in ways that birds just don’t behave…at least if Mrs. Bundy is really the amateur ornithologist she claims to be. If the novel that the movie was based on had been written by the American Shirley Jackson rather than the British Daphne Du Maurier, the plot might well have taken a turn in which the townspeople of the small fishing village descend upon Melanie as the uninvited interloper who arrival coincides with the commencement of birds behaving badly. As a scapegoat for the unexplained, she might well have been sacrificed to the birds to purify the situation and put the natural order back into balance. Which would have made a really cool movie, no doubt, but instead Hitchcock chooses to make a tenuous connection between Melanie’s arrival in chase after Mitch with her story of being abandoned as a child as thus growing into a needy adult. None of which seems to have much to do with the behavior the birds, but it does offer Hitchcock opportunity to delve into relationships and create a false trail for the reader to look for some kind of motivation for nature turning against man.
“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you're the cause of all of this. I think you're evil. EVIL!”
This quote would, of course, be the moment at which the scapegoating of Melanie into a human sacrifice would commence in that Shirley Jackson version of the story. Hitchcock does sort of half-hearted seem to toy with the notion of taking Du Maurier’s off into that divergent direction, but it is just one of his little games red herring games he often plays with audience expectations. Much of the first third or so of The Birds contains scenes and dialogue which hint at the possibility that Melanie and her arrival as an interloper in Bodega Bay is somehow the catalyst for the birds deciding to launch their war on humanity. But where could such a plot device possibly take a director who made thrillers and not horror films?
“In Bodega Bay early this morning, a large flock of crows attacked a group of children who were leaving the school during a fire drill. One little girl was seriously injured and taken to the hospital in Santa Rosa, but the majority of children reached safety. We understand there was another attack on the town. But this information is rather sketchy. So far, no word has come through to show if there have been further attacks.”
The broadcaster on the radio is communicating to the world outside Bodega Bay the events that the audience witnessed earlier and is one of iconic set pieces of the film; more than a set piece, the attack on the kids at the school is a major turning point in the plot. When the viewer sees this attack taking place, it is not yet clear that what is happening is anything but a very strange localized occurrence. The fact that the attack has reached the status of a news report broadcast immediately preceding a segment on the President’s State of the Union address to Congress immediately lends the story a much more sinister apocalyptic element which has now reached a state that even Mrs. Bundy would have trouble denying. From this point forward, the film moves inexorably away from being being an admittedly horrific little thriller about an isolated incident of unusual animal behavior and toward an ominously prophetic warning about an impending environmental catastrophe.
“Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx, a hundred and forty million years ago. Doesn't it seem odd that they'd wait all that time to start a...a war against humanity.”
Yes. Yes, it does seem quite odd, doesn’t it? A less confident filmmaker would never have the guts to allow Mrs. Bundy’s fundamental query to go unanswered. Anything as out of this world as birds turning against man to take back the planet before the humans finally ravaged it and left them with no place to lie must have some sort of explanation, no matter how irrational. Fortunately, Hitchcock had the confidence to believe reject the idea that even an irrational explanation is more rational than no explanation at all.
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