Monday, May 29, 2006

Enrico's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Directed by Robert Enrico, U.S.A., 1962, 24 minutes
Source: Treasures of the Twilight Zone: A Collection of Special Episodes and Rare Footage, VHS 1806

Enrico's short film is adapted from the 1891 short story of the same name by Ambrose Bierce. I had originally viewed this short film years ago in an undergrad course. I found it presently as part of a collection of Twilight Zone segments, since it had originally aired as an episode in 1964. The film’s original premiere was at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the short film Palm D’Or in 1962. It also won the 1963 Academy Award for best short film.

The premise of the film is that a Southern aristocrat during the Civil War is about to be hanged by a group of Union soldiers on a bridge called Owl Creek Bridge. We watch the prisoner being tediously prepared by the soldiers for the execution. But something unexpected happens when the prisoner is pushed off the bridge to hang: the rope around his neck snaps, sending him splashing into the water below. He is able to free his bound hands and legs underwater, and rises to break the water’s surface, only to find the entire group of soldiers firing down on him. As he swims away, they continue to fire their rifles at him, in addition to firing a large cannon. Miraculously, he avoids getting hit, and eventually reaches a nearby shore. There, he regroups and rejoices, before a distant cannon report compels him to run again. He runs through a forest and eventually reaches the gate of his estate. His wife descends the porch of their house to welcome him, and they move toward one another. But at the moment of their embrace, the man suddenly lets out a scream and grabs his neck. The next shot is of the man dangling by the noose over Owl Creek Bridge. The rope had never snapped after all, making all that had transpired after the man was pushed off the bridge nothing more than a desperate fantasy.

The shocker ending is extremely clever, as is the technical execution of the film throughout. The film begins with slow, quiet tracking shots, showing the bridge and the soldiers from a distance. After our first shot of the protagonist—a close-up revealing his fear—we get several first-person perspective shots that establish his predicament, as he surveys his surroundings: a view to the left and right, respectively, showing soldiers guarding either side of the bridge; a view toward an elevated ridge, showing another soldier standing watch above; and, most memorably, a view below, showing the tips of his boots extended over the plank supporting him on the bridge, with the water rushing below. In an extension of this first-person “boot tips” perspective, the protagonist’s fall into the water is depicted in such a way, proving a high-velocity, harrowing shot. Then, as the protagonist hits the water, the camera follows him under water as he frees himself from his ropes and ascends toward the surface of the water. I found this all-terrain filming approach very impressive. The camera continues to follow the protagonist as he descends a waterfall and, later, makes a high-speed run through the forest (in a sequence reminiscent of some of the forest tracking shots in Rashomon). The camera is kinetic and extremely innovative in this short.

The most remarkable technical achievement of the film, though, is the way it infuses subtle elements of distortion into the “fantasy” sequence in order to paint these narrative events (the escape, the homecoming) in an askew light. This is something better appreciated on second viewing (once one knows what is real and what is fantasy). But even a first-time viewer may be able to detect from the technical cues of this sequence that there is something “off” about it, something that puts its events into question. When the protagonist emerges from the water after freeing his ropes, we launch into a highly lyrical sequence, wherein time seems to stand still, as the protagonist observes the world around him in the most minute of detail. We get a series of first person-perspective, extreme close-up shots of leaves, a worm, the dew on the grass, and a spider in his web, as a semi-corny, acoustic guitar-driven song entitled “A Living Man” (sample lyric: “I see each tree . . . I read each vein”), plays on the soundtrack. This sequence is then interrupted by the pronounced vocal distortion of the captain’s voice, which is slowed down drastically to sound monstrous, as he commands his men, “He must be hanged.” The accompanying shots of the soldiers, who are scrambling to take aim at the protagonist, are shown in slow motion, creating a trippy, warped scene. The most pronounced sequence of distortion, though, happens as the protagonist reunites with his wife. He is shown in long shot, running toward the camera with his arms outstretched. This is followed by a shot of his wife, emerging from their house (toward the camera) to greet him. These exact two shots are repeated four times, with the man and his wife never actually making progress toward one another; the respective starting points of their individual advances “reset” with each new cut. Here, just before the film’s “reveal,” is where it becomes most obvious that there is something fantastical about these narrative events.

As an adaptation, the film is extremely faithful to its source. It is probably one of the most literal adaptations of source material out there. The bridge and its surroundings are exactly as they are described in Bierce’s story. Specific shots in the film can even be traced to specific sentences in the text. For instance, the previously described first-person shot where the protagonist looks down at the water finds its correlary in the following sentence: “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.” The only significant difference between the two texts is that the short story gives more background on the protagonist, in terms of the circumstances that had led to his hanging. But the short story has the same shocker of an ending, conveyed in a single, final sentence ("Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge"), in the same manner the film’s shocker “reveal” is conveyed in a single, final (long) shot of the protagonist dangling from the noose (pictured above). All in all, this is a fascinating study in short film as adaptation, in addition to being a fascinating study in short film as technical achievement.


Rhead said...

Because the "fantasy sequence" that Jay analyzes in his post is the achievement of repetitive cuts and sound distortion, I'm curious to know how Bierce's story portrays in writing the fantastical elements of what otherwise seems real.

It is upon the believeability of what turns out to be the condemned's fantasy that the "reveal" succeeds. That success is not a product of the distinct powers of film or writing but, rather, of the scenario itself. Whether real or fantastical the unexpected escape from certain death would feel dreamlike. Thus, despite the filmic clues that could impute a viewer with a sense of suspicion, the snap of the protagonist's neck proves all the more shocking.

Reena said...

I simply loved the way in which you have reviewed this film. For me, the camera behaviour is both first person and observatory in nature. I like the way in which the audience is made to anticipate each action of the protagonist. The film-maker has indeed cheated the audience by letting out the dream sequence in the beginning and making the resultant events unfold in a natural fashion. It is no less than a surprise to see the man dead towards the end. Also, the way in which an event lasting no more than a couple of minutes is stretched to a 20 minute long film makes it an absolute delight to watch!

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This is a great description of a great film.

David Ruekberg said...

The film is not extremely faithful to its source, as stated. Enrico appears to have ignored the whole second section of the story, the first paragraph of which makes it clear (though in ironic language) that Farquhar, the protagonist, is a cowardly slave owner. Rather than fight on the field as a solider, he is caught in a trap laid by a Union solder posing as a confederate who lures him to burn down a bridge serving Union forces. The film's romantic theme, "I want to be aliving man," is an ironic theme of the story as well. Farquhar, an Alabama plantation owner who owned slaves and attempted to undermine the anti-slavery forces of the North.

From the story: "Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction."