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Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories (DVD)

Directed by Don Maxwell, Hannover House

A modest parade of Ambrose Bierce’s wonderful short stories have made it to the screen over the years, but Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories is different in that it actually includes the author as a character. The film covers a period in the late 1800s when Bierce was working as a journalist in San Francisco. It is set in a Bay-area hotel, where Bierce meets with budding novelist Getrude Atherton and his publisher, William Randolph Hearst.

Bierce, played with brooding overtones by Campbell Scott, is convinced by Atherton to read from his collection of Civil War short stories. Three of them—“One Kind of Officer”; “Story of a Conscience”; and “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—are brought to life, with Scott reading the first few lines of each tale as the action begins.

There are a few strong performances by the ensemble cast in each vignette, and each tale is faithfully shrouded with the sense of dark mystery that permeated Bierce’s work. Although character tends to trump action in these portrayals, there’s a sufficient amount of the latter to make it a well-rounded effort. Bierce’s prose is a delight to savor throughout, and each of his tales is capped off with an ironic conclusion—Bierce’s signature device.

Because of the movie’s extremely limited theater run, its 2006 DVD release is generally considered its real premiere. It is of course a pleasure to see the two lesser-known known tales realized in this medium, but the staging of “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” will not disappoint anyone who’s already familiar with other filmed versions.


Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here