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“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”: a haunting study of the incredible from “The Twilight Zone”
French director Robert Enrico’s memorable 24-minute film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge originally aired on the CBS network on February 28, 1964, during the fifth and final season of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.”
Some of you reading this may also remember when it aired on “Night Flight” in the early ’80s, and some of us can also remember the short film frequently being projected in junior high and high school classrooms across the country for many decades thereafter.
Enrico’s 1962 black-and-white short — known in French as La Rivière du Hibou and sometimes translated into English as Incident at Owl Creek Bridge instead of using Bierce’s original title, as the “Twilight Zone” episode does — contains almost no dialogue (one reason may be that it was filmed with French actors playing American Civil War soldiers).
Bierce’s original story — published in 1891, just a few decades after the Civil War — is set in northern Alabama, and although there’s no actual “Owl Creek” in that state (there is one in Tennessee, however), we can presume that Enrico’s film is also set in the same Deep South locale.
We see a handbill, dated April 4, 1862, which declares that anyone caught interfering with bridges, railroads and tunnels will be “summarily hanged.”
This act of treason is apparently based on historical fact: the Union and Confederacy struggled to control the rail lines in the South, and sympathizers to the Confederate army, who were desperate to disrupt Sherman’s supply lines and the Union’s advance into the South, paid for their treasonous acts with their lives.
We soon learn that Southern aristocrat farmer (and presumed Confederate spy) Peyton Farquhar (played by French actor Roger Jacquet) is soon to meet his own fate by being summarily hanged.
One of the only voices we hear during the film is the captain’s distorted voice, commanding “he must be hanged,” and then see Union soldiers tediously going through their preparations for his execution.
The soldiers solemnly line both sides of the bridge, and we see the tip of Farquhar’s boots extending over the plank supporting him on the bridge, the river rushing swiftly below (Bierce describes the scene this way: “He looked a moment at his ‘unsteadfast footing,’ then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet.”)
As a noose is adjusted around his neck, we then switch to Farquhar’s point-of-view, as he closes his eyes and envisions his plantation home, his beautiful wife and his children.
Then, just as his body begins to drop, the hemp rope breaks, and Farquhar drops into the deep water below.
We watch as he frantically tries to free his bound hands and legs underwater, all while the soldiers begin firing at him with their rifles, the bullets piercing the water as he resurfaces gasping for breath.
Somehow, miraculously, Farquhar hasn’t been hit, and he swims off, escaping through swift rapids, until he eventually reaches a nearby shore. Then, he runs frantically through a forest, towards his home and the life he’s left behind.
Along the way, there are extreme close-up shots of leaves, a centipede, the grass still wet with morning dew, and a spiderweb, all as we hear a soulful ballad called “A Living Man” (with lyrics by Enrico).
Bierce’s story has his protagonist traveling day and night for thirty miles to reach his home, all the while experiencing a heightened, almost superhuman awareness of his surroundings, and his thoughts seem to travel, Bierce tells us, “with the rapidity of lightning.”
As he reaches the gates of his plantation home, he crosses and open lawn, and runs toward his wife as she rushes toward him.
Then, just as they reach eachother, there’s a sharp, cracking sound as we flash cut back to Farquhar, dangling at the end of his rope, the film’s director revealing to us in this final shot that, in actuality, all that we’ve just seen from the first moment his body dropped from the bridge has all been Farquhar’s fantasy, flashing before his eyes in the last moments of his life.
In his original story, Bierce leaves no doubt that we’ve just witnessed something that was not quite real: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge.”
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge aired on CBS’s “The Twilight Zone“ in late February of 1964, just one month after the network had announced the cancellation of Rod Serling’s popular TV show.
Serling and company were only able to secure the rights to air Enrico’s film two times, for a cost of $25,000 ($5,000 of which was reportedly paid by the show’s producers as a fee for modifying the film slightly for its broadcast), which may be one reason why it isn’t re-broadcast during a lot of those holiday marathons or collected on DVD sets.
During Serling’s opening introduction, Serling tells us why episode #142 (one of the very last in the original TV series) was so unique and special:
“Tonight, a presentation so special and unique that, for the first time in the five years we’ve been presenting ‘The Twilight Zone,’ we’re offering a film shot in France by others. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival of 1962, as well as other international awards, here is a haunting study of the incredible, from the past master of the incredible, Ambrose Bierce. Here is the French production of ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.'”
Although this season of “The Twilight Zone” received no Emmy recognition, Enrico’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge did win the Oscar for Best Short Film at the 1964 Academy Awards.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce had been a soldier, enlisting in the Ninth Indiana Infantry as a private in April of 1861, at the age of nineteen.
He was, by all accounts, an excellent soldier and was eventually promoted to the rank of major for his “distinguished services” after his regiment fought a fierce battle near Shiloh Church, Tennessee. He was able to resign his commission shortly before the Civil War ended.
By 1867, he was working in journalism in San Francisco, California, writing for the San Francisco News Letter and soon was on his way to becoming one of the city’s great literary figures.
He worked as an editor and contributor to several San Francisco publications (including William Randolph Heart’s San Francisco Examiner), but also continued to write short stories, which were his specialty. He wrote more than ninety of them, the most popular ones coming in rapid succession between 1888 and 1891, in addition to penning controversial columns full of wit and criticism (one was called “Prattle”).
Overall, his writing was noted then, as now, for its bitterness, skepticism, pessimism, and also for its dark humor. Wikipedia tells us, “His vehemence as a critic, his motto ‘Nothing matters,’ and the sardonic view of human nature that informed his work, all earned him the nickname ‘Bitter Bierce.'”
In his original short story, Farquhar — who, it must be said, dreams of being a Confederate war hero — has romanticized the Civil War, as many did, but when confronted with the reality of the war and all its brutalities, he fantasizes that he is able to escape and return triumphantly to his family.
Bierce seems to suggest that his fantasy, of his escape from death, and the self-deception of further dreaming that he’s able to return back to the life he was living before he’d been hauled off and hanged by Union soldiers, is actually a cowardly act.
Bierce’s personal life began to crumble sometime around the turn of the century. After his son’s death (from pneumonia, related to alcoholism) and then getting divorced his wife, in 1904, he drifted off, and, then, simply vanished.
He was last heard from in a letter to his secretary and companion, Carrie Christiansen — dated December 1913, and bearing a Chihuahua, Mexico, postmark — writing to her:
“If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it’s a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia.”
Bierce was never heard from again, but his stories, and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” in particular, have had incredible influence over the ensuring years, and not only inspired writers and their own short stories, but also filmmakers and their feature films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo.
Hitchcock was particularly fond of the short story as a format, which he liked to compare with film in terms of its narrative span, and he certainly knew Bierce’s short story, which was adapted for his own TV show in 1959 (Robert Stevenson directed the episode).
Other feature films which share at least some influence from various literary devices Bierce used in his short story — among them, stream-of-consciousness writing, an unreliable narrator, death dream scenarios, etc. — include 1962’s Carnival of Souls (read NF contributor Chris Morris’s great piece here); Adrian Lyne’s 1990 psychological horror film Jacob’s Ladder; Richard Kelly’s 2001 film Donnie Darko; and, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian dark comedy Brazil, to name just a few.