In 1964, Rod Serling bought the rights to the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge for $25,000. I'm stealing it back.
Robert Enrico's film, produced in France under the title La Riviere du Hibou, was based on the short story by American Civil War veteran, journalist and fiction writer Ambrose Bierce. Enrico had already adapted the Bierce story "Chickamauga" and later incorporated it and a third Bierce adaptation, "The Mockingbird," in Au coeur de la vie, after the original title of Bierce's collection of stories In the Midst of Life first published in 1891. I haven't seen the other two films but I've heard high praise for Au coeur de la vie.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge had won awards at Cannes in 1962 and at the Oscars in 1963 for Best Live Action Short. The producer of the fantasy/horror television series The Twilight Zone, hosted by Rod Serling, saw the film and finagled the broadcast rights for $20,000. An additional $5,000 was spent on re-editing. I probably saw the version originally broadcast in 1964, but I can't attest to its alterations of Enrico's film, except for Serling's obtrusive editorializing at the film's conclusion:
"An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: in two forms, as it was dreamed... and as it was lived and died. This is the stuff of fantasy, the thread of imagination... the ingredients of the Twilight Zone."
The episode has since passed into legend, but it is due solely to the power of Enrico's film, which has been done a disservice by having been assigned to the fantasy/horror genre. Though it draws a considerable amount of its force from the brevity of Bierce's style, the film stands on its own as a remarkable work of art. It is simply the story of a man who knows that he is about to die and the thoughts that pass through his mind in the moments leading up to his death.
Bierce saw so much death in the Civil War and was so personally affected by it that his war stories are haunted by astonishing visions and frequented by ghosts. His accounts of the war, both journalistic and fictional, are a fitting companion to the war photography of Mathew Brady. In their uniqueness and in their power to make something as common as violent death in battle so shockingly new and real, they are, I think, as valuable as Isaac Babel's stories of the Russian Civil War written thirty years later.
Under the credits, the first thing we see is a charred tree stump on which a poster has been placed that reads:
caught interfering with the railroad bridges,
tunnels or trains will be
The 4th of April 1862
Moving among the trees, the camera shows us a railroad bridge suspended across a stream. By the time the credits are over, we see a small group of soldiers in a single rank. An officer orders them toward the bridge. Preparations are being made for what appears to be a hanging: a soldier with sergeant stripes walks to the center of the bridge, throws a rope over a suspended beam and improvises a noose at one end. A man dressed as a civilian has his hands tied behind him and he is led forward by the arm to where a wooden plank is resting on top of the rails, with one end reaching a few feet over the water. With an officer standing on the other end of the plank, the man is moved onto it and placed near the outer edge, turned around, and the noose is placed around his neck. Two men bind his legs together at the knees and ankles. All the while the man is looking around him with a look of fear in his eyes. He glances below him at the slow-moving stream and we hear him thinking [exactly as in Bierce's story], "If I could free my hands, I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home."
What the film hasn't told us is that the Owl Creek Bridge is in Northern Alabama, that the man about to be hanged is Peyton Farquhar, whose family lives thirty miles away, that he is a slave-owner and keenly supportive of the Confederate cause, and that he sought to set fire to the bridge, was captured and summarily sentenced to death according to the order of the Union commandant.
In the film, the condemned man closes his eyes and we are shown his thoughts - a large house in the sunlight, two children playing and a woman in a hooped skirt getting up from her needlepoint and walking towards us, all in slow motion to the distorted sound of a ticking clock. The condemned man is startled from his reverie by an order shouted by an officer, and the sergeant adjusts the noose around the man's neck and a gold watch is removed from his pocket. This is Robert Enrico's visualization of the following paragraph:
"He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift — all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by — it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and — he knew not why — apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch."
Enrico's liberties with Bierce's text are minor. For instance, in the story the rope doesn't snap right away under the hanged man's weight. In the film he plunges straight into the creek. Upon his reaching the surface of the water and filling his bursting lungs again with air, the man's rapturous rediscovery of the beauty of the Spring morning that was to be his last is immensely moving in Enrico's film. And everything he experiences thereafter until the tale's abrupt and shocking conclusion is brilliantly handled.
I would compare this utterly unique short film with one made in 1954 called A Time Out of War by Denis Sanders, that captures the strangest quality that the American Civil War exudes all these years later. There seems, especially now, to be an immense distance between that particular past and the present that no film or work of fiction has been able to bridge. I am not the first to notice this, but the people who were engaged in one of the most decisive events in American history still seem (and in photographs look) like aliens from another planet. Isolated from its historical context, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge remains astonishing.