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Back to Owl Creek Bridge: Robert Enrico's adaptation reconsidered.

In 1978, reporting on a workshop on "Literature into Film," Harry M. Geduld spoke of Robert Enrico's adaptation of Ambrose Bierce's "The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" as follows: "it was evident that if one saw Enrico's film without having read the story, one would have no sense of the author's ironic style" (56). The critical discussion of the film's style seems to have advanced little since. Geduld's observation is true enough, but it needs to be qualified; it does not do justice to the film's rich texture. Despite the general acclaim and several special studies devoted to it, (1) Enrico's adaptation has not been fully appreciated in terms of its stylistic achievement. The present article seeks to rectify this situation.

Bierce's "ironic style" is palpably felt from the beginning of the story. (2) In the first sentence of the third paragraph the narrator designates the protagonist as "the man who was engaged in being hanged" (41). (3) Here, the crucial touch is the insertion of the phrase, "engaged in." While its formal ring is suitable for the solemn occasion, to say somebody is engaged in dying is peculiar, and it signals the narrator's distance from the event. The distance is magnified in the middle section of the story. Farquhar is revealed to be "a slave owner" (42) and his wife, we are told, is "only too happy to serve" the supposed Southern scout "with her own white hands" (43). The ironic tone in the choice of the word "white" is unmistakable. Lawrence I. Berkove makes an interesting case for this middle section of the story as "the most brilliant and underestimated part" (123). He argues that what we mainly get here is not the report of a neutral narrator, but Farquhar's mental rationalization, which shows "how completely self-deluded he is" (125-26). A good example is the sentence, "No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier" (43). This is "utter nonsense," according to Berkove (125), betraying as it does Farquhar's misguidedly romantic notion of heroism. (4) In Berkove's view Farquhar is arrogant, dishonest, deluded, immoral, and stupid. He goes as far as to say: "Bierce despises Farquhar. Never before or afterward did Bierce create a character upon whom he lavished such utter scorn" (129).

Although I find Berkove's reading a little extreme, I agree with him in seeing Farquhar essentially as a foolish man. (5) For this interpretation of the character, the most telling detail is his remark, "I am a student of hanging" (43). Several views have been offered about this curious sentence, with varying degrees of persuasiveness. (6) But whatever the import of Farquhar's cryptic utterance might be, Bierce's point is, I would argue, to reveal the character's stupidity. Here, as he is trying to impress a man whom he believes to be a Southern scout, it would be natural if Farquhar said something like "I am a student of civil engineering," so as to stress his capability as a saboteur who might destroy the bridge. Instead, he says he is a student of hanging. We are made to wonder: who is this man to say such an extraordinary thing? We can imagine Bierce telegraphing to the reader, with cruelly absurd logic, that because he makes such an idiotic remark about hanging he ends up actually being hanged.

In making a film out of the story, Enrico deleted its middle section, which, as we have just seen, is where Bierce's irony is acutely present. This excision was done with deliberation. In an interview the director gives his rationale for the decision as follows:

When I went over this draft I realized that in this episode with the scout what I had was simply plot. First of all, it supplies a reason for the death of Peyton Farquhar.... I found this too complicated. I think that Bierce's story is beautiful if one takes it at its most basic level--in other words, a man, a civilian, will be hanged.... My under lying aim was to show the rekindling of a sense of human dignity which this man appeared to be losing. (97-98)

Enrico's notion of Bierce's story being "beautiful" is related to his sense that it is "brimming with life in the face of death" (93). This is quite an unorthodox understanding. Just about the time when Enrico was making the film, Edmund Wilson authoritatively pronounced his judgment in the following terms:

[Bierce] was constandy obsessed with death .... Death may perhaps be Ambrose Bierce's only real character.... In his comment on local California affairs, it is the murders and the hangings that interest him most.... There is no love of life in his writings. (621, 622, 625, 629)

Enrico was well aware that his was an unconventional view: "I believe that Ambrose Bierce, who has been always considered a 'black' nihilist author, is, at bottom, a man who loves mankind, who loves nature, and who loves life" (93). Here, to criticize Enrico for a "wrong" interpretation is beside the point. As an adapter, he was free to alter the source material any way he might choose, and he chose this particular approach, omitting the middle section of the story. The result, according to Geduld, is that the film's Farquhar "became a kind of Everyman" (57). This statement, however, needs to be modified a little for the reasons indicated below.

In giving shape to his conception, Enrico inserted a song titled "A Livin' Man"--the lyrics run, "I see each tree, I read each vein, I hear each bug, upon each leaf ... I wanna be a livin' man"--at the point where Farquhar, after freeing himself from the noose, breaks the surface of the water and looks around:

I think that the idea of having a black voice came quite naturally. The form of the song was somewhat like a Negro spiritual--it told the story of a man's feelings--and the action took place in the South. The voice to use was obviously that of a black man. And also, appropriately, the voice would be that of an oppressed man. (110-11)

Now, following Geduld, let us imagine a viewer who has not read Bierce's story. Let us also suppose that this viewer has not read the Enrico interview and is unaware of the director's intention. Even then, the posited viewer might infer that, given the time and the place of the story (which Enrico meticulously reproduced with the help of Matthew Brady's photos), the man who faces an execution by Northern soldiers, and who lives in a sumptuous Southern mansion (see Figure 3), is a slave owner. Then the viewer would be puzzled by the song, for if the man is a slave owner he is perforce an oppressor, too. The viewer might go on to wonder: is the man an oppressor who by virtue of being oppressed belatedly realizes the atrocity of his own oppression? Is the song sung by a black man to emphasize this moral problem with severe irony? (7)

The participants of Geduld's workshop, had they had enough time to reflect, could have thought of such ironic complexities, which run counter to the film's overall presentation of Farquhar simply as an oppressed man. The apparent contradiction derives from the fact that the director did not pay due heed to the force of historical inference. The song could be construed ironical, although irony is not intended. This must be pointed out as a possible weakness of Enrico's film where his artistic control is somewhat unsteady. It must, however, also be pointed out that by choosing an actor who does not look like a stereotypical Southern plantation owner (see Figure 1) Enrico may have hoped to imply that here is an unusual Southern planter who has nothing to do with slaves--in which case hardly an "everyman," as Geduld asserts.

While the implication of the song "A Livin' Man" may be thus a little ambiguous, it is quite certain that, unlike Bierce, Enrico wants the viewer to feel sympathy for Farquhar. Consequently, Northern soldiers are regarded as threatening, cruel figures. There is an interesting shot (Figure 2) early in the film where Farquhar's hanging is being prepared; a soldier's head is seen to be framed by the loop.

Gerald B. Barrett comments that "Enrico wants us to consider the image as an ironic symbol--all men must die but the soldier is not aware of this" (199). The irony here works against the Northern soldier. Bierce as a Northerner might have been bemused.

Bierce would, however, have doubtless reacted differently to another scene from this part of the film. Shortly before the fatal drop, standing at the end of the plank, Farquhar thinks of his family: "He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children" (42). For the visualization of this moment Enrico puts on the screen the figures of Farquhar's wife and children playing in front of his mansion (Figure 3). His wife, who has been sitting in a rocking chair, moves out of it, and advances toward the camera. We see in the background a boy pushing a girl on a swing.

The choice of the plaything is apt, since Farquhar is just about to swing. His impending fate makes a striking contrast with the idyllic scene. Bierce would have approved this brilliant stroke, not only because of its compatibility with his sense of irony, (8) but also because of its accordance with one of his own stylistic devices.

The crucial point of Bierce's story lies in the striking ending: the revelation that the whole episode about the escape is an occurrence only within Farquhar's mind; he has never moved from the bridge and has been dangling from it (and swinging) all the while. Bierce carefully prepares for the surprise by providing subtle hints throughout the text. Before Farquhar hits the water, he feels "he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum" (44). This oscillating motion is, shortly after, repeated in the curious action of the Northern soldiers' bullets in the water: "shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward" (46). It is as if the movement of his body was transposed onto the bullets. The earlier mentioned scene in Enrico's adaptation (Figure 3) can be thought of as a shrewd extension of this repeated motif of swinging motion.

Elsewhere, Bierce subtly conveys to the reader the physical movement and condition of Farquhar's hanged body. When he is swept in the stream, Farquhar "whirled round and round" with "gyration that made him giddy and sick" (47; responding to this description, Enrico inserted a shot of the spinning sky and tree branches). Toward the end, before he reaches his home in his imagination, Farquhar feels "his neck was in pain" and that "his tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air" (48). In actuality, what happens is not that he voluntarily thrusts his tongue out, but that the tongue involuntarily sticks out because of the strangulation. As Cathy N. Davidson says, "apparently naturalistic details ... describe the physiological effects of death by hanging" (52). The terrible irony is driven home by the next sentence: "How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue--he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet" (48). Of course, there is nothing beneath his feet. F. J. Logan rightly perceives Bierce's "charnel wit" here: "This almost jovial description of the hanged man ... make[s] it obvious that for Bierce [Farquhar] is negligible and expendable, and fair satiric game" (106).

Although this particular "charnel wit" does not make its way into Enrico's version, the film imaginatively recreates the last part of Farquhar's mental journey. The relevant paragraph (the one immediately preceding the passage discussed above) must be quoted whole:

By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this riff in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which--once, twice, and again--he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue. (48)

Of the "marvel and mystery" of this passage, Berkove remarks that "the association of fantasy and death in this story is consistent" (131). Then, after noting Farquhar's realization of the pain in the neck, thrusting of the tongue, and feeling of the feet, he observes: "Again, diligent readers are retrospectively able to recognize these unusual reactions as attempts by his unconscious to reinterpret the grim physical symptoms of hanging for adaptation to his ongoing fantasy" (131). Thus, even eagle-eyed Berkove does not go any further than previous commentators, such as Davidson and Logan; he, like others, fails to respond to an interesting detail Bierce provides in the quoted passage above: "The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective." Enrico's adaptation will make us see what Bierce is getting at. For the filming of the scene, the director sought an appropriate location. He recalls: "As to the forest scenes, some were shot near Paris, where I found the rectilinear alleys which I needed to create the nightmare universe of Peyton's dream" (103). Figure 4 shows how the film manages to visualize Bierce's description.

Note, however, Enrico talks about "the rectilinear alleys"; he uses the plural form. There is indeed the other "rectilinear alley" and it is a fascinating shot (Figure 5). After Farquhar gets out of the forest he comes upon this vista.

The seemingly quiet image, in fact, admirably expresses Farquhar's "nightmare universe." Enrico manages the feat by the device of visual parallelism. (9) Consider the scene where Farquhar comes back to his estate. He does so through a heavy iron gate (Figure 6). There is no counterpart in Bierce's story; it is purely a cinematic invention.

This image, we will note, parallels that of the "rectilinear alley." The visual echo assumes great significance when we realize that the alley and the gate send us back to the image of another "rectilinear" structure--the bridge (Figure 7).

By this visual parallelism, Enrico's film subtly makes the point, just as Bierce does, that Farquhar is in fact still at the bridge and has not moved from it at all. Thus, if we read the film carefully, we will perceive that the story's central irony is brilliantly visualized. In response to Geduld's comment, I would submit that although Enrico's film lacks Bierce's ironic tone, it conveys his dramatic irony with signal success.

Enrico's adaptation is impressive not only visually but also auditorily. Sound greatly enriches the film's semantic activities. At the beginning, we are shown on a tree trunk a notice that any civilian interfering with the railroad will be summarily hanged. Then there is a tracking shot of the woods, accompanied by hooting of owls, which is followed, as the camera nears the bridge, by diverse chirps of birds. We keep hearing birdsongs throughout the preparation for the execution, and in this sequence the chirping becomes dominant. This chirping is omnipresent: it is there at the end of the song "The Livin' Man"; immediately following it, in the commotion around the bridge; when Farquhar is at the river bank; when he has stopped running in the woods; during the journey from the woods to his home; and at the very end. By this pervasive chirping, the film suggests that these sounds are aural residues in Farquhar's mind. They are what he has heard on the bridge; they do not belong to the places that he imagines he visits in his mental journey. (10) Ultimately, they signify that he has not moved from the bridge.

The foregoing observation will gain strength when we note another significant use of sound to the same effect; this time the sound is extradiegetic, rather than intradiegetic as in the above example. The film begins with a drum roll lasting twelve long seconds, followed by another lasting fourteen seconds. The military resonance is appropriate; it is natural that Farquhar's execution should be attended by it. An auditorily arresting sequence occurs, however, where Farquhar keeps running in the forest. On the soundtrack we hear Kenny Clarke play an explosive drum solo. No other musical instrument is employed. The percussive music is so unusual that it immediately catches the viewer's attention. What is really striking, though, is the auditory parallelism involved here. Clarke's continuous beating on the snare drum reminds us of the drum roll that opens the film. We must also recall that a drum roll ends the film. The drum sound functions very much as the birdsongs do; by this device Enrico leads the viewer to imagine that the echo of the sound on the bridge reverberates in Farquhar's unconsciousness. The film thus adds another hint suggesting that he has not escaped.

This point is reinforced in a remarkable fashion by the film's ending, again through skillful control of the viewer's response. As far as I know, James W. Palmer is the only critic who has closely examined the opening and closing segments of the film. He argues that "Enrico's main addition to the story, the long tracking shots through the wintry landscape that frame the beginning and end of the film, alters the final impact of the work." (11) Noting that at the end the camera zooms back from Farquhar's body and stops with an extreme long shot of the bridge, he states:

Not only does this shot give us a sense of completion, ending where we began, but it also gives us a different perspective from that given by the story. By reducing the scale and obscuring our final view of the event, Enrico makes his own comment on war and on the nature of man in general. The birdsongs on the soundtrack that ironically proclaim the sunrise and signal the hanging, the sentry's dutiful march back and forth on the bridge, the tangle of branches that nearly obscures the hanged man--all these elements elicit a number of possible reflections from the viewer, among them the general indifference of nature to man, the ritual efficiency of man's inhumanity to man, and the final insignificance of any one man's death. (Palmer, "From Owl Creek")

Let me offer a reading of the ending, which is entirely different from that of Palmer. As we have observed, with the visual and auditory parallelism involving the rectilinear images and the sound of drums and birds, the film suggests that Farquhar has not moved though appearing to have done so. Bearing that in mind, what we must attend to is the camera movement at the ending, which carries great semantic importance. The final sequence starts with the camera capturing Farquhar's body hanging from the bridge (see Figure 8; note where the body is located in relation to the bridge). Then the camera slowly pans from left to right. It keeps moving in the same direction, showing a bleak riverside (Owl Creek), and a forest of bare trees, ending up with a distant view of the bridge (Figure 9).

Given the camera movement, we might think we have moved to the other side of the bridge. That, however, is not the case. Farquhar is still seen at the right side of the bridge. Therefore, we are looking at the bridge from the same angle as at the start. What has happened? Have we turned around 360 degrees? Actually, this is not an unbroken sequence; there are a few fade-ins and fade-outs. Enrico's film interestingly manipulates the viewer. We are tricked into feeling we have moved when we have not done so. Note that it is precisely what happens in Farquhar's mind. In this manner the ending of the film makes the viewer go through the same experience as the protagonist, thereby ingeniously emphasizing the story's crucial point.

I have begun this article by quoting Geduld's claim that Enrico's adaptation does not convey any sense of Bierce's "ironic style." Such an impression largely stems from the film's omission of the middle section of the story. Enrico dispenses with that part because he is sympathetic--not ironic, like Bierce--toward Farquhar. His filmic discourse, however, with the aid of visual and auditory devices, skillfully reinforces the story's central dramatic irony that, contrary to appearances, Farquhar has in actual fact not moved from the bridge. Enrico's cinematic style, which has not been fully appreciated, is, as I hope to have demonstrated, as versatile and expressive as Bierce's own.

Toru Sasaki



The research for this article was supported by JSPS Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research, Grant Number 24520280. I am grateful to Edward Costigan and the anonymous referees of this journal for helpful comments.

(1.) Enrico's La riviere du hibou (1962) won the Short Film Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962, and an Academy Award (Best Live-Action Short Subject) in 1963. Gerald R. Barrett and Thomas L. Erskine produced a book devoted to this adaptation in 1973.

(2.) Robert C. Evans's annotated critical edition, available at the website of the Ambrose Bierce Project, is a convenient guide to the past criticism of "Owl Creek Bridge." Of the numerous studies of Bierce's irony in the story, Lawrence I. Berkove's is the most thorough. Maintaining that the story is a hoax--"an intentional misrepresentation by the use of details" (118)--in which Bierce is constantly playing mind games with unwary readers and setting traps for them, he exhaustively cites important details with a keen eye.

(3.) All page references to Bierce's story are to Barrett and Erskine.

(4.) Concerning the last part of the sentence, Berkove points out that a civilian and a soldier are to Bierce mutually exclusive kinds of people, the distinction being at the heart of the title of the author's collection, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (126).

(5.) F. J. Logan, too, expresses a view very close to Berkove's. The reader, however, may not be totally without sympathy for Farquhar. Don A. Habibi is perhaps right in commenting that, although Farquhar is negatively portrayed, "We applaud life's struggle to assert itself over death."

(6.) For example, Donald T. Blume, noting that readers of the Examiner where the story was first published were accustomed to sensational details in the newspaper's coverage of public executions, says, "This general public awareness of the horrors associated with the hanging process is perhaps what Bierce meant to suggest when he labeled Peyton Farquhar a 'student of hanging'" (147). James G. Powers thinks it suggests Farquhar's inner "expression of a pleasure principle, analogous to Freud's libido" (279-80). William Conlogue claims that Farquhar grows hemp (used in making rope), the implication of "a student of hanging" being that "he studies rope"; "His dream is the portrait of a narcotic hallucination" (37).

(7.) The British Film Institute's Collections Search database identifies the singer as Kenny Clarke, who plays drums on the soundtrack. If it is correct, the irony is multiplied, for Clarke was one of the African American musicians who moved to Europe because of racial discrimination. Annie Ross, a singer and Clarke's sometime girlfriend, recalls: "He used to feel that the white people had stolen his music. He was quite militant about it--militant enough to become a Muslim, change his name and get out of the country. He had a very hard time--he'd been ripped off time and time again" (Hennessey 196).

(8.) Given the overall sympathy toward Farquhar in Enrico's film, however, the viewer would not interpret the inclusion of a swing as a piece of Biercean cynicism. In other words, the film audience will sense a situational irony, but not an ironic commentary on the protagonist.

(9.) Parallelism, as distinct from repetition (exact duplication), is explained by Bordwell and Thompson as "the process whereby the film cues the spectator to compare two or more distinct elements by highlighting some similarity (47).

(10.) This might lead us to regard the "whispers in an unknown tongue" Farquhar hears in Bierce's story also as (distorted) aural residues in his mind.

(11.) Palmer notes the contrast between the barren trees here and the richly foliated trees in Farquhar's fantasies. Thomas Simonet makes the same point (57).


Barrett, Gerald R. and Thomas L. Erskine. From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Encino: Dickenson, 1973. Print.

Barret, Gerald R. "Double Feature: Two Versions of a Flanging." From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Ed. Gerald R. Barrett and Thomas L. Erskine. Encino: Dickenson, 1973.189-211. Print.

Berkove, Lawrence I. A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio UP, 2002. Print.

Blume, Donald T. Blume, "'A Quarter of an Hour': Hanging as Ambrose Bierce and Peyton Farquhar Knew It." American Literary Realism 1870-1910,34 (2002): 146-57. Print.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. Print.

Conlogue, William. "Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Explicator 48 (1989): 37-38. Print.

Davidson, Cathy N. The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984. Print.

Enrico, Robert. "Director at Work." Story into Film: Three Tales of the Supernatural Go from Page to Screen. Ed. Ulrich Ruchti and Sybil Taylor. New York: Dell, 1978. 91-116. Print.

Evans, Robert. Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge": An Annotated Critical Edition. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Geduld, Harry M. "Literature into Film: An Occurrence at Owl Creed Bridge'." Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 27 (1978): 56-58. Print.

Habibi, Don A. "The Magic Moment: The Liminal, Distended Time Flashforward of Ambrose Bierce." TbeABP Journal 1 (2005). Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

Hennessey, Mike. Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke. London: Quartet, 1990. Print.

Logan, F. J. "The Wry Seriousness of 'Owl Creek Bridge.'" American Literary Realism 1870-1910 10 (1977): 101-13. Print.

Palmer, James W. "From Owl Creek to La Riviere du hibou: The Film Adaptation of Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'." Southern Humanities Review 11 (1977): 363-371. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 72. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.

Powers, James G. "Freud and Farquhar: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?" Studies in Short Fiction 19 (1982): 278-81. Print.

Simonet, Thomas. "Filming Inner Life: The Works of Robert Enrico." Cinema Journal 14 (1974): 51-59. Print.

Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore, 1962. New York: Norton, 1994. Print.
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Date:Jun 22, 2015
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