An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962)
Directed by Robert Enrico
“A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck.”
These haunting sentences open Ambrose Bierce’s most famous Civil War–themed short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” It is the story of Peyton Farquhar, a Southern plantation owner and Confederate spy about to be hanged by the Union Army for attempting to blow up a railroad bridge. Farquhar, like all of Bierce’s fictional characters, lives in an ethereal world where the natural and the supernatural flow seamlessly together. Time and place become blurred. The expected and unexpected occur with seemingly random frequency until all one’s senses become confused and unreliable.
In 1962, Robert Enrico, one of France’s up-and-coming New Wave directors, imaginatively adapted Bierce’s story for the screen. The powerful 28-minute black-and-white film, while short on dialogue, is firmly grounded by Jean Boffety’s lush cinematography, a haunting score by Henri Lanoe, and Roger Jaquet’s moving performance as Farquhar, a condemned man determined to escape the hangman and return home.
Enrico’s film won Best Short Subject award at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award for Live Action Short Film in 1963. Rod Serling, the genius behind the innovative television series Twilight Zone, showed the film in 1964 on the small screen to American audiences. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge—in two forms, as it was dreamed, and as it was lived and died,” intoned Serling at the conclusion. “This is the stuff of fantasy, the threat of imagination…the ingredients of the Twilight Zone.”
Other Bierce short stories have been adapted for the screen, but none has succeeded in depicting the mystical borderland that exists between illusion and reality found in this chilling short feature film.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.