An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (La rivière du hibou )

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (La rivière du hibou) is an award winning French short film from the early ’60s that was broadcast on American television as part of the original Twilight Zone. I was able to watch it for the first time with the purchase of a DVD set of the series. I do not know how much alteration it may have undergone for American TV. Presumably not much because aside from one obvious commercial break, there are no blatant edits.

Based on a well-known story by Ambrose Bierce, which has been adapted several times, the film is about a Confederate landowner, Peyton Fahrquhar, about to be hung by a group of Union troops. When the moment of truth arrives, the rope snaps and he escapes. In most of the film, he runs, swims, and whatever else he has to do to get away and home. (The famous twist ending is worth keeping secret for anyone unfamiliar with it.)

The film is surprisingly successful in convincing that it takes place in the United States. Shot in France, the “European” qualities of the locale only poke through in isolated moments. The extras seem to have been selected carefully to look “American.” Their pale skin, light hair, lax comportment and well-fed physiques are convincing surrogates of Union soldiers. Similarly, the surroundings have been chosen for their resemblance to rural America. The only exception to the “American” texture is Fahrquhar, who is darker and a bit dandified, perhaps to differentiate the rich Southern landowner from the drafted Union farm boys. (Bierce describes him as a “gentleman,” itself slightly un-American.)

There is a stark contrast between the film’s cinematic qualities and the more theatrical style of the Twilight Zone series. Made after the explosive arrival of the New Wave, Occurrence is a virtual catalog of the movement’s free-wheeling mannerisms. Shot entirely outdoors, the physical environment is practically a character. Dialog is minimal, and there is a lengthy sequence consisting only of music and shots of nature. The camerawork foregoes the careful lighting and composition of studio shooting in favor of fluid, nearly documentary-style spontaneity, with frequent tracking shots and images photographed with long lenses in shallow depth of field. And rather than cutting to maintain spatial or dramatic continuity by smoothing the transitions between shots, the editing stresses visual impact through juxtaposition.

While the Twilight Zone itself was often quite inventive technically, it also answered to the standards of tightly controlled, studio production. (Its polish remains one of its chief attractions.) Occurrence’s silences, extended passages of natural lyricism and flamboyant execution are far removed from Serling and company’s carefully scripted, dialog-heavy expression. The differences may invite invidious comparison, and I admit to a slight preference for the New Wave tradition, but neither approach is categorically superior. To advocate one over the other obscures the important point that both prove short films can have the breadth and expression of the best features.

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