The Last Of Us: Post-War Anxiety In The Birds At 60

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds turns 60 this year, but its post-WWII anxieties are more prescient than ever, finds Sam Moore

The birds are coming. Alfred Hitchcock’s third adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier story pivots from the rural Cornwall setting of the book to airy Bodega Bay in California, but otherwise stays faithful to the embedded anxieties of the Post-Second World War psyche fractured from six years of a war that barely left a square foot of the globe unscorched. The birds are terror. The birds are fear. The birds are coming. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Du Maurier’s short story comes from a quintessentially British perspective. Britain, of course, had been pounded in World War II by the Luftwaffe as Nazi Germany unleashed the Blitz across 1940 and 1941. Over two million houses were destroyed by Nazi bombs. Over 40,000 civilians perished in the blazes. Britain’s population was at the mercy of the skies. It’s this point that is central to du Maurier’s text – the bird attacks evoke the Blitz and the heightened state of anxiety that was everyday life in 1940s Britain. The randomised attacks of the creatures comment on the sheer helplessness of people on the ground.

Outside the devastation of Pearl Harbor, America knew nothing of such fears. But a decade had passed between the publication of du Maurier’s story and the making of Hitchcock’s film, and new anxieties were arising. The Second World War had made way for the Cold War as America and the Soviet Union engaged in ideological battle through proxies in Vietnam, Nicaragua and Korea all under the lurking shadow of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are a fear that is absolute, 60 years later, they percolate the evening news as frantically as they did back then and they percolate with paranoia through Hitchcock’s adaptation of du Maurier’s story.

Hitchcock’s film couldn’t have been released at a more apt time. Just months earlier, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, with the early 60s representing the high point of friction between the US and the Soviet Union. Hitchcock’s films were always fraught with tension – whether that be sexual, socio economic or over identity – but the fear at the heart of The Birds is cornered with a universal realism despite its high concept plot.

The Birds starts out as one of Hitchcock’s lightest films, as it breezes along the road of broad humour and romance as Mitch (Rod Taylor) and Melanie (Tippi Hedren) strike up a flirtation in a petshop in a scene you’re more likely to associate with Howard Hawks than the master of suspense. But the normality of the events around the San Francisco Bay eventually gives way to mania. There is a clash of classes, as the stiletto-wearing socialite played by Hedren transplants herself into the haughty conservatism of Mitch’s family and society very quickly starts to tear apart, the birds a merciless wrecking ball to this anonymous, almost idyllic town.

Hitchcock being Hitchcock, he seems to take the side of the birds in that we have it coming, that we deserve something terrible to happen for we never knew how great we had it. Hitchcock was driven by the belief that despite the Cold War permeating every aspect of society – from Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts to young men being carted off to Vietnam – much of America (where the Brit had lived since the 30s) was somewhat oblivious to the potential for catastrophe. The director had used birds in his movies before – most notably in his early film Blackmail and later in Psycho, where Norman Bates keeps an eerie hoard of taxidermy. His birds are in order.

During one attack, Hitchcock gives us quite literally a birds eye view of Bodega Bay. We see the land as a bird or fighter pilot would. The aerial shot sees the small town as prey. It’s the view a bomb would take, as it readies itself to unleash devastation. The bird attacks also mimic the flow of war. First, there are occasional attacks but their intensity increases until they are so voluminous that it’s all-consuming, and all the society knows is war – failing to become a functioning society at all. Hitchcock never made a formal war movie, but this is the savagery of conflict as imagined by the director.

As the birds launch themselves on the population, society breaks down in a way you’d expect from a nuclear attack. People don’t just suffer from panic, but are overcome with biblical levels of hysteria as the birds indiscriminately attack men, women and children whether they’re alone or in large groups. The way the citizens of Bodega Bay respond to the attacks also bears similarities to how people would attempt to flee the Blitz in Britain, highlighting not only the threat of the birds but also the limited way in which the government could protect its population from aerial threats. People cover and cower, they avoid going outside, ordinary citizenry is completely disrupted. The birds, like bombs, seem to have one purpose – to do harm.

What is also noteworthy in Hitchcock’s nuclear allegory is the state of the birds’ victims. The first prominent death at the hands of the birds is Annie, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Her eyes have been grotesquely pecked and clawed from their sockets – blindness is also a symptom of a nuclear blast. One look at the explosion can burn the eyes to blindness.

As the film nears its end, the birds entirely take over Bodega Bay. Barely an inch of land hasn’t been colonised by their presence as they’re seen on phone lines, the town’s petrol station and even the school. A number of the town citizens including Mitch and Melanie take refuge in a diner, and the scene acts as a microcosm of a society under siege. The scene takes on an apocalyptic bent – as does the entire final act – as society starts to splinter and almost enter a post-fallout series of events as people search for some kind of safe space and a leader to take charge.

We see a community that has lost. They argue over the genesis of the bird attacks, with one even offering that it is a sign of the end of the world. Melanie is also scapegoated as an outsider by another woman in the community, showing just how quickly society can fall apart when order and rules are smashed by outside forces.

The Birds ends with Mitch and Melanie (along with Mitch’s sister and mother) listening to a car radio as they hear of other attacks across the US. Bodega Bay looks like a wasteland, and it’s now a well-worn tenet of post-apocalyptic fiction (The Walking Dead, The Last of Us) to have a group led by a strong male character make their way through the wreckage in search of hope. The birds watch them as they drive away because after all, bombs can be dropped anywhere.

While Hitchcock was of course tapping into the sensibilities of his age, with the threat of extinction a permanent fixture of life in the 60s, society has a way of walking itself in circles. The images of The Birds – fearfully hiding from what’s coming from above – are emblematic of a world that constantly chooses violence over anything else, as seen in news broadcasts from Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and countless other countries around the globe. The world changes, but we don’t. Hitchcock knew the birds will come for us all eventually.

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