By Izeth Hussain –
Many works of fiction and film, more particularly those of high quality, are susceptible to varying interpretations, even to the extent that sometimes totally opposed interpretations could have equal plausibility. This applies to Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds, which was based on a 1952 story by Daphne du Maurier. I am here offering an interpretation of the film that ties it up with the case argued in my recent article in which I explained the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Western commitment to Israel as arising out of a Western racist dread of advancing Asiatic hordes, more particularly an Islamophobic dread.
I shall provide here no more than a very brief synopsis of the plot of the film, indicating in outline its main features that are significant for my argument and leaving it to the interested reader to turn to the internet for more details about the plot. A wealthy and glamorous female feels insulted by a lawyer in a San Francisco bird shop where he sought unsuccessfully to buy a pair of love birds as a birthday gift for his kid sister. The female pursues him all the way to the sea side resort where he spends his weekends with his mother and kid sister, and clandestinely places the caged love birds in his house. Another of the main protagonists is a school teacher, the former girl friend of the lawyer. Inexplicably the heroine is attacked by a sea gull, and by stages the entire sea side resort comes under attack. All the inhabitants flee, apparently the last being the lawyer and his family accompanied by the heroine.
The film can be enjoyed as a straightforward horror film, with all the compelling power to be expected of a successful Hitchcock film. Certainly it is a film that once seen can never be forgotten. But it cries out for interpretation, which is a characteristic of films of high quality. If you take Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, you have an excellent film that apparently bears comparison with the best of Hitchcock, but it doesn’t cry out for interpretation. Likewise with the other films of Wilder, which put him in a class far above average. But all the same he doesn’t invoke comparison with the cinematic greats, such as for instance Bunuel who was declared by Hitchcock to be the greatest of all film makers – an assessment that I incline to share. I have in mind the distinction between verse and poetry: verse has one line of meaning like prose, whereas a poem – in the best definition I know of it, that of Riffaterre – says one thing and means something else.
So, what does The Birds mean? Obviously birds don’t attack human beings in real life and therefore the core of the film cries out for a symbolic interpretation. What seems to have become established is a Freudian interpretation of the film. The family of the hero consists of himself, his mother, and kid sister, with himself acting as a surrogate father in the absence of a real one. It is an Oedipus situation in which the mother is cast as a possessive female who wants to prevent her son getting together with the heroine. But I haven’t seen details substantiating that interpretation. When the mother meets the heroine for the first time she is uneasy and suspicious, but that is explained soon afterwards: the heroine is a notorious member of the international rich set who has recently received newspaper publicity for jumping naked into a fountain in Rome. That, and not an oedipal fixation, could make the heroine an unsuitable companion for her son. There are many details in the film that cannot be fitted into a Freudian interpretation. What is one to make of the self-sacrifice of the school teacher in trying to save the children? Above all, why do the birds attack? That brilliant and eminent intellectual Slavoj Zizek, if I understood him correctly, held that the attack represented an eruption of female libidinal energy. But why do the birds attack, not just that family, but the entire seaside resort? Something of a collective order, not just of an individual or nuclear family order, is clearly indicated.
The birds evidently symbolize subconscious insecurity and dread of an alien invading force. A French film critic whom I read long ago held that the film derived its power from the subconscious Western dread of the Chinese, a notion that in my view gains plausibility if the film is seen in the context of its time. The 1952 du Maurier story from which the film derives ends with the destruction of the entirety of British humanity by the birds, which could be taken as a metaphor for the wartime blitz and possible destruction by the atom bomb. For his 1963 film Hitchcock took over from that story only the idea of a destructive alien force. For the chief protagonist of the story, a Devon farmer, he substituted a glamorous American member of what used to be known in the ‘forties and the ‘fifties as the “international rich set”, who were much publicized even in the Sri Lanka newspapers. We can safely assume that Hitchcock, who we must remember had an exceptionally strict upbringing as a Catholic, would have regarded that set as representing the West at its most irresponsible and its most vulnerable. That was shown by the heroine jumping naked into a Rome fountain and later smashing a shop window. By way of contrast to her, the seaside resort is delineated in loving detail as a close-knit community in which people are helpful to each other as a matter of course. The school teacher is not jealously obstructive towards her competitor, the heroine. The intrusion of the latter, an alien force, disrupts that community and allows the eruption of the destructive force symbolized by the birds. But in the course of the struggle against the birds, she learns responsibility and wins her man.
I must add something about why the birds attack. In some plays of Shakespeare, in Macbeth for instance, there is the idea that human order and the natural order are parts of the same continuum, so that disruption of the former leads to chaos in the latter. I don’t think that this idea is peculiar to Shakespeare or the West. I have the impression that people all over the world have the propensity to blame Governments for the destruction wrought by major natural disasters. The Government’s wrong-doing is seen as making everything go topsy-turvy, including the natural order. Perhaps this idea is as old as humanity, and perhaps it gives tremendous force to Hitchcock’s film at a subliminal level.
But why bring in the Chinese? The West, more particularly the Americans, had a dread of the yellow peril, meaning that the West, in effect the civilized world, would be overwhelmed by the Japanese and the Chinese, a dread that began in the late nineteenth century and went on for decades. The 1905 military defeat of Russia by Japan, of a white power by a colored power, was seen as epoch-making and as a possible portent of things to come. China however remained a powerless victim of the Western predators, and Japan was defeated in the Second World War, making the notion of the yellow peril seem preposterous. But the Communists came to power in China in 1949, it was seen that China had stood up, and it was expected that sooner or later it would start marching forward. The Western reaction to that prospect was insanely racist. It was held that Taiwan represented the whole of China or that there were two Chinas, Taiwan and mainland China. Furthermore the two super powers, the US and the Soviet Union, got together against China, an anomaly because it was never the practice for two leading powers to get together against a weak third power. Perhaps the explanation was racism: the two leading white powers were ganging up against an emerging yellow power. Anyway it was in that political context that that French film critic held that Hitchcock’s birds symbolized the Chinese. Very probably many Westerners would have reacted to the film in those terms.
Hitchcock was not of course pointing his finger at the Chinese in his film – we are addressing here the question of what happens at a subliminal level in experiencing works of art. However the color symbolism in the film makes it clear that he is pointing at dark forces that could become invasive. The film which is in color begins with black birds figured on a creamy white background, and the most destructive birds are black in color, which are at one point designated as crows. The viewer could be expected to experience all that as pointing to the potential invasive power of dark Afro-Asiatic hordes, represented at present by the Islamic world. A point of interest – a detail that cannot be fitted into a Freudian interpretation of the film – is that the kid sister takes along with her the caged love birds as the family make their exit from the house. Is there a moral there? Birds could be dark invasive creatures but they could also be gorgeously plumed enchanting creatures if they are caged, tamed, civilized.