The Literary and Cinematic Triumph of “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”

A well-dressed and carefully coiffed man is poised on a plank in the middle of a bridge, surrounded by Union officers, all of them silent and stoic, mostly staring straight ahead. We hear birds chirping and water flowing in the river below, along with the clomp of soldiers’ boots and the rustling of ropes and ties as they move into position to bind the man hand and foot and neck in preparation for his hanging.

The atmosphere is solemn and silent, with but four words spoken (“First squad, stand fast!”).

The man casts his eyes about, fidgety, looking around himself and down to the water. He notes a piece of driftwood floating by and lingers with it for a moment. He tugs at the rope binding his hands behind him, gauging its give. Tears form in the corners of his eyes.

Nearly six minutes pass with this careful, excruciating preparation for an execution. Finally, one soldier removes his feet from one end of the plank that balances the man on the other end—and sends him plummeting like a suddenly dislodged boulder from his end of the bridge.



By my own completely unscientific guesstimation, 90+ percent of movies based on a book or short story fall far short of the original. Given the sheer time and budget constraints of the finished product, films are forced to make too many compromises and cuts to literary works, almost inevitably shortchanging their depth, nuance, texture, and the emotional complexity of their characters.

But there are exceptions.

Ambrose Bierce wrote “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” as a 3,700-word short story in 1890 as one of a series of tales growing from his own experience as a Union officer in the Civil War. It was in turn made into the middle story of a film trilogy by French director and writer Robert Enrico in 1962, the first one being Bierce’s “Chickamauga” (1889) and the last “The Mockingbird” (1891). All three of the stories and others were published in his volume “Tales of Soldiers and Civilians” (1891).

Unfortunately, neither “Chickamauga” nor “The Mockingbird” are readily available for viewing via any of the usual platforms, but we are fortunate indeed that “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” arguably the most powerful of the stories (stiff competition, though), is available via You Tube in high definition for $3 and, for just a few more days, as a free “Twilight Zone” rerun if you have Netflix (season 5, episode #22).

(Come July 1, Netflix will place “The Twilight Zone” on one of its periodic hiatuses until popular demand brings it back.)

Peyton Farquhar is a southern plantation owner with predictably strong Confederate sympathies who talks to the wrong person at the wrong time about the wrong thing as Union troops draw uncomfortably near.

So moved was “Twilight Zone” creator and host Rod Serling by “…Owl Creek” that in February, 1964, he turned his show, in which he had tremendous and well-deserved personal pride, completely over for the first time to a film that he had nothing to do with, besides admiring it enough to want to share it with American audiences.

My best impassioned advice is to read the story, for sure, but to track down the movie any way you can for what just might be the most riveting 25 minutes you’ve ever spent in front of a screen.



Part of the genius of Enrico’s film treatment, along with a haunting score by composer and film editor Henri Lanoë (more on that below), is its economy of words—and the almost unbearable tension built by their absence.

All manner of psychological action—as close observation and anticipation rather than physical activity—takes place in the six minutes leading up to the man’s forced plunge from the bridge. The only words we hear from him are a plaintive, silent call to his wife in his imagination— “Abby, Abby!”—as he forms a mental image of her while perched on the bridge, awaiting his fate.

Seconds later, all is abustle as the soldiers on the bridge are instructed to shoot the frantically swimming man who has almost miraculously managed to escape his bonds and launch a desperate effort to get downstream.

There are then words and noise aplenty, the words from the soldiers as orders are barked and pursuit of the escapee is joined, the noise from the man’s heavy breathing and splashing as he escapes rifle fire and even a cannonball, all of them amiss.

Still ahead are loud and treacherous rapids before the man finally flops down on a sandbar like a beached whale, albeit a deliriously happy one, who has just cheated death and wants to take a huge bite out of the delicious, superabundant world in order to properly celebrate it.

But not yet.

Nearby, renewed rifle fire gets him to his feet and sprinting, crazed, terrified and shot through with adrenaline.

The film now goes wordless again till its end, only the sounds of breathing, foot-slapping and vegetation-rustling accompanying the man’s fevered dash for what looks to be to be his…home?…up ahead?…at the end of a road…behind stately gates…where his wife is…sure be waiting, yes?… as he rushes headlong into her arms, her long travail of worry finally over.

Or will it be?


Ambrose Bierce was a journalist and writer of renowned wit and droll skepticism toward human behavior and the supposed romance and heroics of war. He is probably best known for his “Devil’s Dictionary,”  which featured satirical definitions of common words that have kept people laughing with only slight unease since its publication in 1911. A sample:

ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.

Bierce specialized in unconventional points of view and unexpected endings to his stories, and
“…Owl Creek” disappoints in neither.

The story is a powerful stream of consciousness in which we join the protagonist—not named or described in any detail until the second section commences 1,000 words in—as we almost crawl inside his beating heart, his fear, his regret, and the wild, drunken exuberance and desperation of the life force that courses through every cell of his body as he makes his initial escape.

Peyton Farquhar is a southern plantation owner with predictably strong Confederate sympathies who talks to the wrong person at the wrong time about the wrong thing as Union troops draw uncomfortably near.

He is a refined man of means caught up in the maelstrom that engulfs every person in one way or other during wartime. And removed as he has been from actual battle, he has now not altogether innocently entered it, the consequences of which may cost his life.

Bierce writes a beautiful paragraph on Farquhar’s newfound joy in life as he emerges downriver and anticipates his escape. We touched above on filmmaker Enrico’s treatment of this state of sheer ecstasy, but let’s appreciate Bierce here, too:

He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon-flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

Yes, when one thinks he has been handed back his life as it has hung on the precipice, even the lowly flies—flies!—appear to be “brilliant-bodied,” not to mention the wonder of “prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.”

Exactly right. That’s always how it is when one is dumbstruck, for one reason or other, by the sheer existence of the world, by the fact that it is, rather than isn’t. And that one is still a part of it.

So now let’s wind this up with a little talk about the song.


Music, nature and silence provide the vast bulk of the aural landscape that Enrico creates for his masterpiece. He gets a huge assist from his countryman Henri Lanoê, who wrote all the music, including the only lyrical element, the centerpiece song, “A Livin’ Man,” heard just below in the clip from the film’s final four minutes (no worries or spoiler alert, it does not show the key final seconds).

Information on the music is minimal, but the singer is reported in a couple of places to be Kenny Clarke, an early bebop jazz master drummer who imbues his lines about this LIVIN’!! man with grit that is just this side of a triumphant growl. It’s a beautiful performance, with sparse instrumentation and an affecting tune you will find yourself repeating a good part of the coming days, so beware.

Also, the entire 10-minute soundtrack can be found at

Hats off and ears and eyes open in appreciation to all the responsible parties—Bierce, Enrico, Lanoê, the actors Roger Jacquet and Anne Cornaly, Clarke, and most certainly Serling and his producer William Froug, who alerted Serling to the film and thus gave it far wider and more sustained exposure than it ever got as a 1962 Cannes Film Festival and 1963 Academy Award winner for best short film.


“I see each tree/I read each vein/I hear each bug/Upon each leaf/The buzzing flies/The splashing fish/They moves around/This livin’ man…”


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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

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Screen shots from the film

13 comments to The Literary and Cinematic Triumph of “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”

  • Jonathan P.  says:

    Advice, please: read the story first, or see the film?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Great question, Jonathan. I’d normally say read first, but given the dramatic and sudden visual impact of the story’s conclusion, I’d say see the film. Otherwise, the huge buildup of tension the film manages to convey with its visuals, sound and music would be diluted more than it would be if you reversed the order. The reading is definitely worth it, though, to see how Bierce did it, and with some detail you don’t get in the film.

  • Roy Bodshaug  says:

    Bierce was a genius everything I read of his awakens new thoughts and appreciation of that.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Agreed, Roy, and a wicked-in-the-best-ways genius besides!

  • David Moriah  says:

    Saw the title and had to read this one (full disclosure: I’m so overwhelmed by the niagara of items in my in-box that I don’t always read every one of your excellent posts). I remember seeing this Zone episode when I was about 12 and it haunted me for years. I’m a Zone devotee and have watched late night and New Year’s Day marathons through all decades since, but I think I’ve only watched a re-run of “The Bridge” once or twice at most. Your post added depth to my knowledge of this, one of the greatest Zones of all time, and I loved the video you posted which brought me back to the JFK era. Sigh.

    I saw the hero/protagonist with new eyes tonight. He was most likely a slave owner, a cruel and inexcusable choice for a man to make, and yet of course, we sympathized with him in this dreamy fiction.

    Meanwhile, my life overlapped with Rod Serling for several years and one of my life regrets is that I never met him or took advantage of what might have been. I was a Cornell student (1968-1973) while Serling was a professor of communications at Ithaca College, only a few miles away. If I could time travel I would go back and cross those few miles to sit in on one or more of his classes.

    He was a genius, and from all I glean from Zones he was also a wise and compassionate man, a true “mensch”. RIP, Mr. Serling, and thank you for all the art and wisdom which you gave to the world.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      David, we started watching the Zone from the very beginning with Episode #1, early in the pandemic, an episode or two at a time, especially when it was too late to do a 2-hour movie. Found it to be mostly a hoot, sometimes profound and sublime and way ahead of its time, other times suffering from poor production, laughable sets or bad acting, and leaving us chortling or worse—rolling our eyes. But invariably, just when we started to think, “Well, maybe this was never as good as we thought when we were but shallow youth…” the next episode would just knock us out with its complexity, wild imaginings, and windows into human consciousness, from a generous rather than withering frame. And I think you’ve put your finger on its foundation: that Serling was a “wise and compassionate man, a true ‘mensch.'”

      At bottom, a star-gazing humanist—I think it comes through even in his brief introductions and the subject matter he puts forth. It’s made me want to investigate whatever biography there is of him. (I just peeked and see his daughter wrote a laudatory one—what a relief!—and there’s an American Masters TV bio of him, too—good places to start, I think.)

      And finally—no kidding, Cassius Clay?? I will look forward to this! Thanks for popping back up here—always enjoy your commentaries.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Jonathan asked a great question…Should I first read the book before watching the movie? Like you, normally I would answer “read.” However, there are movies like “Dr. Strangelove” which I would wholeheartedly say “watch the movie first.” By the way, I’ve always thought that short stories like “Occurrence at Owl Creek” make better films than novels. Short stories offer more freedom to the screenwriter. A short story possesses a more singular and condensed plot with fewer characters than a novel, which makes adapting it to the screen much easier. Director Elia Kazan understood this perfectly when he took Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” to the big screen. He felt the novel’s four-part structure, which told the story of the Trask family over several generations, needed to be more focused so his film only covered its concluding section. Smart move.

    I’ve seen the Twilight Zone episode, but I’ll need to catch the “Le reverie du hibou” Incidentally, If you have a chance or can find Rod Serling’s teleplay “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (Quinn, Gleason, Rooney and Julie Harris), it’s a great watch. Once again, Drew, thanks for your continued heads up.

    • David Moriah  says:

      “Requiem for a Heavyweight” is a gem, one of the best Zones of all time. By the way, look closely while you watch it. There’s a poster in the background promoting an upcoming fight featuring a young Cassius Clay. He was little known at the time.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Good point about a short story being better suited for effective transfer to film than a full-length novel is, Robert. Hadn’t thought of that.

      Also hadn’t thought of Requiem for a Heavyweight in a very long time, vaguely recall seeing it in my youth, I think the full movie Anthony Quinn version, but now my appetite is really whetted for reacquainting with it. So many versions…not sure I can manage the Yugoslav one, but would be interesting to give it a peek!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert & David, found the original Playhouse 90 performance of “Requiem…” on You Tube and it was riveting. Lovingly restored by a young guy who gives a 10-minute review in the beginning of all the technical challenges trying to bring a crappy, ancient film quality of a live performance from almost 70 years ago back to life. No small task, apparently, but it’s a great 90-minute play and Jack Palance is a revelation; thoroughly enjoyed myself…And it even includes the old commercials, which you can fast-forward thru but they’re kind of a hoot, including a pro baseball player endorsing Camel ciggies, oh my…

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Just watched restored Playhouse 90 Requiem. Also, discovered the ’62 film with Quinn and others on

  • Don Shrumm  says:

    Ah Andrew! I think I saw this movie first in the mid to late 70s in some Language Arts class. Shook me. Haunted me for decades, occupying a peculiar space alongside “Picnic at Hanging Rock” as unforgettable and unlikely that anybody else had seen. Found it on You Tube a few years back and was utterly delighted again. My first exposure to art film I think. Wonderful to revisit here!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Don! So good to hear from you. Felt these great waves of recognition, memory, pleasure, course through me when I saw your reference to “Picnic At Hanging Rock.” Saw it only the once, late 1979 or early ’80, and I remember the exact feeling of being completely entranced inside the theater and then walking out into the night air with one of those “What did I just see and experience in there?” questions just rolling through me.

      We sleepwalk through so much, and then we come across something like that and the world seems suddenly foreign, mysterious, unknowable, possibly menacing but in a fascinating way. Of course, it’s just art house menace, privileged menace and mystery, and then we get to go drink whole bottles of wine to talk it through and calm ourselves down. But that doesn’t make the experience any less real.

      The world IS a crazy/mysterious/possibly menacing place. The delusion is that it’s not, which we perpetuate in order to get stuff done and have civil relations and not wander around in a daze most of the time—like we do after beholding things like “Picnic At Hanging Rock” and
      “…Owl Creek Bridge.” Many thanks for the reminder!

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