By Phil Hall | November 6, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 308: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1962 Oscar-winning short).

LAST SEEN: Available for viewing on several web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Available for years from public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The mistaken belief that it is a public domain title.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It has enjoyed a commercial DVD release as part of “The Twilight Zone” series, but bootlegging persists.

During last week’s Halloween festivities, many web sites posted videos of classic horror films. Perhaps the most unexpected and eclectic online video link was at the Los Angeles Times web site, where the 1962 short film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was shared. While the film is not famous for Halloween-style monsters and mayhem, it is a genuinely chilling production that inevitably leaves viewers with an eerie feeling.

Before we go further into the column, a word of warning: if you’ve never seen this film and know nothing about it, please go over to YouTube and watch it first. There is a very famous and significant surprise in the film, and it helps to know the film in advance in order to understand its unique history.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is based on an 1891 short story by Ambrose Bierce. The source material had previously been filmed in 1929 as “The Bridge” and as a 1959 episode of Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series. Neither version, however, was particularly memorable. In 1962, a French company decided to create its own version of the story.

This was actually a curious decision, since “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” takes place during the American Civil War – not exactly a subject that one associates with European-based films. Even more unusual was the decision by director Robert Enrico to use English for the film’s brief dialogue and an English-language song on the soundtrack. This may have offered a greater sense of authenticity – it is hard to imagine that this was done to gain wider distribution, since the U.S. market for short films had all but evaporated by 1962. However, a French-language title, “La rivière du hibou” (“Owl River”), was used for exhibition in France.

The film also did something fairly drastic by cutting out the first two-thirds of the Bierce story, which used an irregular time sequence to detail how a Southern plantation owner is entrapped, arrested and prepared for execution by Union troops. Absent of the back story (including the original name of the prisoner, Peyton Farquhar), the film opens with abrupt sight of a small Union battalion readying the noose that will hang a man whose hands are bound behind his back.

The minutes leading up to the execution are painful to watch: the noose is placed over the prisoner’s head, his pocket watch is taken away from him, indifferent troops stand at either side of the bridge, and the prisoner slowly evaporates from resigned stoicism to pained anguish.

When the drop from the bridge comes, the camera follows the prisoner through a seemingly miraculous descent into the water. In the river below the bridge, he successfully struggles to free himself of his rope bondage. Rising to the river’s surface, he hears the voices of the angered troops preparing to shoot him. He swims away and floats down the river, surviving a descent down a small rapids into a peaceful alcove.

Realizing that he cheated fate, the prisoner suddenly appears to possess extraordinary visual and aural senses. Every plant, insect, tree and ray of sunlight is more vibrant, and he even pauses to sniff a wildflower. But the blasts of distant cannons reminds him that he is still in a war zone. He races through the woods, collapsing at one point, but regains his strength and is able to find his way home. His wife is waiting for him, smiling in confidence upon his return. He races towards her, a great smile coming across his face. He reaches her and is ready to share his love again, but then…

But then? Well, if you don’t know the film, that’s why it was cited at a Halloween classic by the Los Angeles Times!

Roger Jacquet plays the prisoner and his performance is an extraordinary work of physical power. He has no dialogue, yet he conveys the prisoner’s wild rush of emotions in remarkable depth – the terror of dying, the shock of surviving his execution, the wonder of rediscovering nature, the panic of being caught in a war zone, the ecstasy (complete with outstretched arms eager for an embrace) of being reunited with his wife, and the tragedy of his ultimate fate.

Visually, the black-and-white cinematography offers a startling echo to the Civil War-era photographs of Mathew Brady, particularly in the scenes at the bridge. Yet it employs a contemporary music score that includes a bluesy tune “Livin’ Man” to describe the prisoner’s second chance and jazzy instrumentals to signify the chaos of his escape from the war zone and his return to his plantation.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” won the Palme d’Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. It played on the festival circuit for the remainder of 1962 and into 1963, when it won the BAFTA Award in the UK for best short film.

Good fortune came to the film via William Fraug, a television producer who was teaching a course on short film production at the University of Southern California. Fraug, who was one of the producers on “The Twilight Zone,” was buoyed by the positive response his students presented to a classroom screening. He successfully convinced Rod Serling to include “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” on the fifth season of “The Twilight Zone,” and a $10,000 fee was paid to the French production company for two prime time U.S. television screenings.

The film was slightly edited down to fit “The Twilight Zone” time slot. For the introduction, Serling broke with precedent by sitting down in a film studio and confirming the unique nature of the episode. “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,” said Serling to the camera. “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.’”

The film was broadcast on February 28, 1964, and was repeated when the season’s episodes went into rerun. Two months after its television premiere, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Live Action).

However, the film was not included in the syndication of “The Twilight Zone” that ran endlessly for years on local TV stations across the U.S. Most fans of Rod Serling’s offbeat program only knew of the film by name and reputation – it was not available on television.

But thanks to the rise of VHS home video, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” came back. Although it is not a public domain title, it was bootlegged by labels specializing in copyright-free titles. I first discovered the film in the early 1980s in a bargain video bin at the discount retailer Woolworth’s, under the label of a fly-by-night company that played up “The Twilight Zone” on its label without mentioning its French origin or its Oscar.

However, properly licensed and quality prints of the film are included in commercial DVD releases of “The Twilight Zone” episodes (the film was ultimately reunited with the other Serling episodes). Yet unauthorized copies can still be located online.

Whether you prefer the proper method of watching films or the slightly sneaky bootleg method, it is essential to seek out “An Occurrence at Owl Bridge.” And if you still don’t know what happens at the bridge, well…what are you waiting for? Go find out for yourself!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Eman says:

    Why didn’t the film maker include a background story for the man who got killed

  2. Justine says:

    My grammar school owned 16mm prints of “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” and “La Jetee” and used to show them every year to fascinated/terrified children.

    Seeing these films at an early age made a huge impression on me and others I went to school with. thanks for writing about it.

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