For the Birds Radio Program: Movie Review: Sleepy Hollow

Original Air Date: June 2, 2000 (estimated date)

Some bird issues were dealt with well in the movie Sleepy Hollow, if you don’t mind a head chopping here and there.

Duration: 4′44″


For Mother’s Day this year, my sons bought me a DVD copy of the movie “Sleepy Hollow.” It’s a strangely beautiful film except for the gruesomely realistic beheadings. The cinematography is ethereally beautiful, the sets and costumes sumptuous, and the nuanced performances perfect for Tim Burton’s bizarre combination of humor, whimsy, and horror. But it’s not a movie for the faint-hearted or squeamish. In the past several weeks I’ve been cleaning up the remains of my little owl Archimedes’s daily beheadings of thawed mice, which has numbed my sensibilities enough to find the movie wonderful, though after three viewings I still wince and can’t watch the actual choppings.

Three species of wild birds had critical roles in the movie, to say nothing of a gaggle of farm geese that ran about in one scene to lend a chaotic flourish. Tim Burton used a Great Homed Owl’s hooting in two scenes. The first creates a scary atmosphere for a scene that turns out to be a fake. But the second owl hoot really does foretell a death. Owl hoots are stereotypically used as warnings of death, and Burton wisely limits his use of them to these two incidents.

Throughout the movie, Burton uses color to dramatic effect, especially black, white, and red. Oddly, despite the frequent appearance of blood, he mostly uses vivid red for the most innocent characters. During the opening credits we hear cardinal songs and crow calls, an interesting contrast between the sublime and the sinister.

Burton uses cardinals in several scenes to depict loveliness and innocence. Ichabod Crane has a simple toy his mother had given him long ago–a small, thin sheet of wood with a bird cage painted on one side, a cardinal in flight on the other, and strings coming out on either side. When he pulls on the strings, the rapidly spinning images makes the cardinal seem to be flying inside the cage. When Ichabod leaves New York City for Sleepy Hollow, he sets free a real pet cardinal he’d been keeping in a cage. A live cardinal was used in this scene–the movie was filmed in England where cardinals are still legally kept as pets. But in a later scene a cardinal sitting on a branch singing a real cardinal song is actually a fake bird, rather similar in design to Disney’s fake American Robin that Mary Poppins holds on her finger while singing part of “A Spoonful of Sugar.” While watching and listening to Sleepy Hollow’s singing cardinal, Katrina says, “I’d love to have a tame one, but I wouldn’t have the heart to cage him.” The last cardinal we see is a limp, dead one that a witch in the woods has laid out for a potion she’s working on. Burton manages to make the cardinal a symbol of vulnerable beauty, innocence, and tragic loss.

In contrast to cardinals, Burton crows symbolize malevolence–in scenes with singing birds, you can usually pick out both cardinals and crows, but when the camera lingers on a desolate tree snag, you hear just the crow’s angry caws. As our fear grows that Katrina may be evil rather than innocent, she conjures up a potion that involves slicing off a dead crow’s legs.

Although Sleepy Hollow birds play fairly standard symbolic roles, I was pleased that the background sounds were of real birds you could hear in a New York forest, and that the crow and cardinal songs were authentic, showing that the sound editor paid careful attention to the ornithological details. Sleepy Hollow is the kind of movie I can’t recommend as a general must­ see movie because the violence is so dramatic, but if you do see it, savor those little ornithological touches.