Robert Enrico’s Civil War Trilogy based on stories by Ambrose Bierce

Though Robert Enrico would spend most of his career directing French crime films, he remains best known for his short film, An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge (aka La rivière du hibou), which was included as an episode of the Twilight Zone. La rivière du hibou is actually a part of a trilogy of films that Enrico made about the American Civil War, all based on stories by Ambrose Bierce. Using dialogue and voice-over economically, all three stories rely heavily on the rural landscape, and how it is transformed through war and the psychological state of the protagonist, to convey their ideas.

Tonight, a presentation so special and unique that, for the first time in the five years we’ve been presenting ‘The Twilight Zone’, we’re offering a film shot in France by others. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival of 1962, as well as other international awards, here is a haunting study of the incredible, from the past master of the incredible, Ambrose Bierce. Here is the French production of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.

La rivière du hibou remains the most famous of Enrico’s oeuvre. It is the tale of a man who is about to be hanged, and at the last moment, the rope magically breaks and he plunges into the water, and manages to escape. The first ten minutes or so of the film are the moments leading up to the hanging. No words are spoken, and the focus is almost entirely on the ritual and detachment of the executioners. It is clear from the onset that the person about to be hanged has not had a trial, and has had no time at all to come to terms with his fate. Desperate and confused, he can only focus on his surroundings, as he still hopes for a final chance of escape. In one of the very last moments, he cries out for who we can presume is his wife… and we realize that he will not only lose his opportunity to say goodbye to her, but she will probably never know what became of him.

By some miracle however, the rope snaps as he falls into the water, and manages to escape from the firing of his executioners. The film never quite lives up to it’s opening, and though the impressive and captivating nature of the chase is incredibly well executed, the anticipation to his death is far more tense and exciting. The roving camera of the opening, as we move behind the trees to witness the final moments of this man’s life are deceptively beautiful. The lack of sentimentality and apparently clinical nature of the proceedings really dehumanizes the characters involved in such a way that seems to completely eliminate any semblance of humanity. It becomes something of an act of God, as the camera becomes an all seeing eye, who can take any position and perspective, while a man is “punished” for seemingly no other reason than him being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite the protagonist’s fear of death and desire for life, his execution does not seem especially cruel. Though this is definitely the least dream-like (ironically…) of the three films in the trilogy, the absence of context creates a strange sense of dread and unease, thus entering the circumstances into a realm of the Gods rather than that of human law.

As with all the films of the trilogy, the use of sound is pivotal. Again discussing the first part of the film, pre-execution, sound is used to create a sense of tension and dread. The sound of a chorus of singing birds opens the film, it is before dawn. The scene progressively becomes louder and more anxious, as the protagonist is set up for his death. The sound of men walking along a wooden bridge mirrors that of a metronome or a ticking clock (the sound of a watch is also integrated, quite beautifully, alongside a fantasy/flashback of the protagonists’ wife). The noise of the noose being tied, and the fabric wrapped around his legs to hold him still are amplified to an aching degree. The rickety wood echoes, until with a loud clack, the board is set free, and he crashes into the water below.

Though the sound remains strong throughout the film, it also tends to rely a bit too heavily on the use of voice and narration.  The greatest weakness of all the films tends to be the use of language, in part because it is quite obviously dubbed. Even beyond that, the voice-over style ultimately does not seem necessary as everything is so wonderfully conveyed through the images and the voice-over seems superfluous.

It is unfortunately difficult to discuss the full effects of this particular piece without revealing the ending. So, if you are either unfamiliar with the story, I recommend to stop reading now. The final revelation that the entire escape existed only in the mind of the protagonist could have easily been a cheap twist in the vein of “it was all a dream type ending”, but it is actually very affecting (on screen and in print). I think this is in part because of disrupts our perception of time and space. The timeline of the “escape” probably runs a few hours in the mind of the character, and takes up two thirds of the running time of the film. In “real time”, the entire imagined event actually only takes place within a fraction of a second, from the moment that the protagonist falls to the point that the rope gives in, presumably resulting in an instantaneous death.

Though the most famous, La rivière du hibou, is actually the middle story in the trilogy. The first is Chickamauga, named after a battle from the American civil war which marked a very significant Union defeat. It is also remarkable for the imagery it inspired, notably in inspiring the unofficial naming of the Chickmauga river, as “the bloody pond” due to the fact it apparently ran with the blood of the over 35,000 soldiers who died during the two day battle. This particular film is told from the perspective of a deaf and mute child, who wanders off the day of the battle. When he eventually stumbles upon the aftermath of the fight, it is presented as a surreal dream.

The boy’s disability hinders his ability to truly understand death, which is why he can wander through it so freely. He never hears the sounds of battle, or the cries of the dying, and apparently did not face death before this moment. He is aware of a change in his environment however, because the once sunny landscape is now obscured by thick smoke. His curiosity is what draws him to the source, and he is met by a man dragging himself along the ground in the distance. The boy is not disturbed by this and. imagines the man as both a large pig and a bear from the circus, being dragged along on a leash.

The child’s emotional detachment from the unfolding events becomes increasingly difficult to swallow, as the casualties and injuries mount. The full scale of these atrocities are explored through continual use of tracking shots that pan across the forest, revealing that the ground has been effectively “flouded” with an innumerable amount of human bodies, both alive and dead. The child manoeuvres his way around and over these bodies, occasionally interacting with them, but only as if they are a game. The extended scene is without any sounds of death, as the young boy being deaf, probably cannot fathom what suffering sounds like. Instead, the scene is scored with patriotic music, and an eerie original score that would be fitting in any horror film.

The child’s imagings suggest a complete lack of understanding of war and death, but his actions demonstrate a knowledge or awareness of violence and soldiering. Throughout the entire film he carries a wooden sword that he uses in imaginary fights against imaginary enemies. Though he never uses it against any of the soldiers, during his interactions with them, he wields it as a weapon, and seems to perceive himself as some kind of military leader. It is unclear as to whether he misinterprets this dying army as the “real” version of an attacking army, or simply sees them as subservient due to their childlike nature.

When he finally tires of this scene, he finally returns home. The once peaceful southern cottage is in flames, but the boy still remains unaware or unreceptive to the meaning of this. It is only when he discovers his mother, lying dead, that he seems to realize what true meaning of death.

Returning to the film’s opening, there is a montage of art depicting the war between the American forces and the Indians, along with a song sung about the child. The repeated phrase is “boy, war is your heritage”. The sheer power and strength of the film’s imagery allows it to stand-alone as a work in aesthetics, but its power as a document and instrument of change is also remarkable. The fact that the boy’s identity is tied to war, and he cannot hear or speak, makes for something of an easy analysis, but that does not necessarily underscore the power of its execution or implications within the text. Also worth noting, is that in the final moments when the boy becomes aware of what death is, he had just discarded his sword into the fire. I think this is meant to convey how we must construct false realities in order to justify war, and to cope with individual involvement as soldiers.

The final film in the trilogy, The Mockingbird, further explores the psychological of the soldier , as a man tries to come to terms with the knowledge that he killed a man. While standing the evening guard one night in the woods by his camp, Pvt. Greyrock slowly becomes aware that someone else is in the forest with him. As he moves almost aimlessly through the dark, searching anxiously for the source of the noise, suddenly about two dozen feet ahead of him, a figure appears; he shoots, killing the man. This sets off gunfire across the camp, which disorients and frightens Greyrock. He remains at his point until sunrise, when his superiors find him. They reward him for keeping guard during a moment of chaos, which only further disturbs his state of mind.

The next few days are difficult for Greyrock; he is given a medal, which he not only feels he does not deserve (he only stayed at his post out of fear), but is teased mercilessly by his fellow soldiers because they think he is a coward for not actually fighting (no one is aware that Greyrock opened fire, let alone killed a man). Driving him to the brink of an apparent breakdown, Greyrock asks for a day’s reprieve, which he hopes to use to find the body of the man he killed. He searches the forest for hours, wandering the uninhabited land dreading and hoping to find a body. After an unsubstantiated amount of time, he seems to give up, and lies in the grass, only to fall asleep.

He dreams about two twin boys and their pet mockingbird. Their relationship defies the need for words, and their bond is so strong that they might as well be one. We follow them over the course of the day as the play and care for their bird. Eventually they are rowing along a river and it begins to pour. The rain completely overwhelms the landscape, and seems to weigh down and almost destroy their pet. When they return home, they find out their mother has died. The two boys are separated, with one heading in one direction, the other in the opposite one. There are no words of parting, though the boys try to cling onto each other, before being pulled apart by their new guardians.

Greyrock then awakes because he hears the song of his childhood pet. Is it just a dream? He follows it, only to finally discover the body of the man he killed, who is none other than his estranged twin brother. Though at some point during the flashback/dream about the twins, it becomes somewhat obvious as to the outcome of the final scene, it does not eliminate any of the shock of the revelation. Pvt. Greyrock kills Pvt. Greyrock, and it is nothing short of eerie. Death is at the heart of the “twist” of each one of these films, and the implications are always haunting. There is no new life in death, only the sad realization that we are continually orchestrating our own demise, and at what cost? Even the survivors of these stories are faced with a grim future; one without happiness or hope. Death is a disease that continues to spread, and even with the physical body intact, it can infect and destroy us.

I’m not sure words can do this spectacular trilogy justice, especially as they rely so completely on their visuals as a means of captivating the audience. I am honestly completely taken by each one of them, and they are already the source of incredible inspiration. The skill, care and passion involved in making them peers through each and every single shot, and they demonstrate beautifully cinema at its full strength.  Whether or not the stories interest you on the surface value, the economy as to which they are told is enough to recommend them. These are films that any and every person who aspires to make films should see.

Read Ambroise Bierce’s stories

Chickamauga

The Mockingbird

An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge

4 responses to “Robert Enrico’s Civil War Trilogy based on stories by Ambrose Bierce

  1. Merci for your evocative text and beautiful pictures of Enrico’s trilogy of shorts. If there ever was a fine adaptation of a fine story, Enrico came very close to touch it.

  2. These sounds fascinating. I saw “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” many, many years ago in an English class while reading the Bierce, but it sounds like it is time to revisit the whole trilogy. I am adding it to my queue…

  3. Yes, wonderful adaptations of some absolutely wonderful texts. Faithful as well.

    They’re all worth seeing, I hope that more people will see them.

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