Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Jessamyn West’s The Friendly Persuasion, Walt Whitman’s collection of poems Drum-Taps and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind are among some of the most famous examples of historical fiction and literature about the American Civil War. More recent works would have to include Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Michael Shaara’s trilogy (Gods and Generals, The Killer Angels and The Last Full Measure) but some of the most evocative and unsentimental writing about the War Between the States can be found in the Civil War short stories of Ambrose Bierce, who served in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. I find it surprising that no major American feature films have been based on his work yet several of his short stories have been adapted for the screen in Poland, England and France. And the most memorable one of all remains Robert Enrico’s Au Coeur de la Vie (In the Midst of Life, 1963).
Featuring three of Bierce’s most famous short stories – Chickamauga, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Mocking-Bird, the film attracted the attention of Twilight Zone host Rod Serling, an avid Ambrose Bierce fan, after An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge won Best Short Subject at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and then an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject in 1963. Serling purchased the screen rights to this episode in Enrico’s trilogy and arranged for the American TV premiere in the 5th season of The Twilight Zone in February of 1964.
This was not the first TV adaptation of Bierce’s story. Alfred Hitchcock Presents had aired a version of the story in December 1959 starring Ronald Howard in the title role of Peyton Farquhar and Juano Hernandez, Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Kennedy and James Coburn in supporting roles. Although An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was only 27 minutes long, Serling still had to edit out two minutes from the film to fit into a 30 minute time slot with commercial interruptions for CBS. He also added an introduction and an epilogue as the host and it was this broadcast that introduced most American viewers to Enrico’s film, though it was only a third of the director’s original concept.
Although Chickamauga, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Mocking-Bird were all filmed separately during 1961-1962 and exhibited as short subjects at some film festivals, the three films fit together seamlessly as a trilogy and was released to theaters in 1963 (In the Midst of Life was showcased at the 1963 New York Film Festival). The three films share some of the same actors and most of the key crew members including cinematographer Jean Boffety (pictured above) and music composer Henri Lanoe. Interestingly enough, Lanoe is much better known in the French film industry as a film editor with such credits as Pierre Etaix’s Yoyo (1965), Louis Malle’s The Thief of Paris (1967) and Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976).
Exquisitely photographed in luminous black and white and featuring Boffety’s son Pierre as the young boy protagonist Johny, Chickamauga opens the trilogy with a grim recap of what happened at the battle of Chickamauga, a three-day campaign that is considered one of the bloodiest clashes in the war and resulted in the deaths of over 35,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. The ominous tone continues with a montage of disturbing woodcuts reflective of our nation’s bloody history involving Native Americans and slavery, all of it accompanied by a blues singer crooning, “Little boy, you got war as a heritage….” [Be forewarned: spoilers ahead].
While Bierce’s original story is much more descriptive of the graphic violence, death and destruction that occurred at Chickamauga, it also veers into the surreal and Enrico’s adaptation accents this, achieving a hallucinatory, dream-like quality at times punctuated by an occasional nightmarish image.
When we are first introduced to Johny (he is unnamed in the original story), we see him riding his black servant Willie like a horse while brandishing his toy sword. Willie is soon called away for household work by Johny’s mother and the little boy angrily wanders into the woods where distant gunfire can be heard. When his father comes searching for him, Johny hides and eventually falls asleep, awaking at dusk to encounter scenes of carnage that he cannot really process as reality.
As he wanders through a landscape of charred woodlands and smoking timbers, he notices something crawling. Through his eyes, it first looks like a pig or a chained bear but soon he realizes it is a soldier moving on all fours over the muddy ground. Dozens of other wounded and maimed soldiers emerge to form a crawling procession that tries to make its way toward the creek. But for Johny, everything is like a game of make-believe. A wounded drummer with a bloodied face appears to him as a circus clown. The boy inspects a real saber from a dead man and briefly plays with a bugle from another corpse. He even attempts to ride piggy-back on a wounded Union soldier before being tossed off. None of the horrors seem to register until Johny returns home to find his house in flames. Even then he picks through the rubble and throws things into the fire. It isn’t until he finds his mother dead on the ground that he begins to perceive what has happened. The episode ends with the boy blankly staring into the void (In the original story, the boy is revealed to be a deaf mute who was isolated in his own world).
Enrico’s Chickamauga captures the physical horrors of the infamous battle and the aspect that makes it even more haunting is the bucolic setting. Amid the sights and sounds of nature (flowing stream, insects and birds, the rustling wind in the trees), death is everywhere, all of it man-made. This visual duality of human suffering amid the beauty of nature is a key component of Enrico’s trilogy and Boffety’s lyrical cinematography makes it even more disorienting.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the second story in the trilogy, is probably the most fantastical of the tales with a twist ending which reveals that most of what has transpired exists only in the imagination of the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar – an accused railroad saboteur who faces hanging by Union officers.
Most viewers who saw the film on The Twilight Zone know that An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge begins with the condemned man being prepared for execution (it omits the prisoner’s backstory from the original Bierce tale). As the prisoner is dropped from the hanging platform, however, the gallows rope breaks free from the bridge rafter and the man is plunged into the river. He is then carried downstream away from the Union officers and their guns. He manages to free his bonds underwater, kick off his heavy boots and eventually make his way through the forest toward his plantation.
The prisoner’s miraculous escape breaks the doom-laden tension of the story and segues into something exhilarating and unexpected. The lovely folk ballad, “Living Man,” also adds poignancy to the prisoner’s trek toward freedom. It is only as he races toward his wife with open arms that we realize it is all an illusion. At the moment his wife touches him, Farquhar is pulled back by some unseen force and we see the final instant of his death with his neck snapping. The transition is especially shocking and powerful since escape is revealed to be a cruel narrative trick.
The final segment of the trilogy, The Mocking-Bird, has a macabre, ghostly quality to it and for most of its length it proceeds like a mystery. We don’t know much about Private Greyrock except that he didn’t desert his post in the depths of the forest unlike most of his fellow soldiers. Although he is rewarded by his commanding officer for his courage and given temporary leave from his unit, he continues to replay a night shooting incident in his mind. Did he really hear something and actually shoot another soldier in the darkness? Greyrock wanders deep into the woods, trying to retrace his steps from the evening before. He falls asleep and dreams of his childhood when he and his twin brother led an idyllic existence on their plantation. Their mother indulged them and they roamed free in the countryside, digging up worms on the riverbank, racing through meadows and teaching songs to their pet mockingbird. But the mother’s unexpected death brought an end to the life they had known and the brothers were separated and sent to live with different relatives.
When Greyrock wakes up to the sound of a mockingbird, it eventually leads him to his previous post where he fired the shot. Nearby he discovers the body of a dead Confederate soldier at the base of an uprooted tree. He looks at the face and it is a doppleganger of himself. Greyrock is finally reunited with his twin brother.
The Mocking-Bird, more than the other two stories, addresses a terrible truth about the Civil War that became a commonplace reality for family members fighting on opposite sides of the war. It was inevitable that fathers, sons and brothers might kill each other in battle but Enrico’s adaptation dramatizes this as an eerie encounter that verges on the supernatural.
Robert Enrico enjoyed widespread critical acclaim for In the Midst of Life outside France and around the world but the film was barely distributed and few people saw it at theaters. Also, Enrico was not considered part of the recent New Wave movement and that may have affected his career adversely. Unlike the often spontaneous and improvised non-traditional filmmaking of directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, Enrico’s Civil War trilogy was a tightly scripted, literary adaptation that looked like a polished studio production. The subject matter was also distinctly American whereas most of the New Wave directors were focused on contemporary France, often set on the streets of Paris with young actors in movies like The 400 Blows, Breathless and Paris Belongs to Us.
Enrico followed In the Midst of Life with La Belle Vie (The Good Life, 1963), an impressionistic portrait of an ex-soldier returning to Paris after serving in the Algerian War. Because it addressed such an unpopular topic with the French government and moviegoers, La Belle Vie was doomed to fail but it might look like some undiscovered masterpiece today…if only it was available for viewing.
For better or worse, Enrico soon gravitated toward commercial projects that proved to be quite popular with French audiences, especially a run of comedy-adventures and crime dramas featuring such major stars as Lino Ventura (The Wise Guys, 1965), Alain Delon (The Last Adventure, 1967), Jean-Paul Belmondo (Ho!, 1968) and Brigitte Bardot (Rum Runners, 1971).
Occasionally Enrico would score a modest success with an art-house effort like Zita (1968), a New Wave influenced story of a woman (Joanna Shimkus, wife of Sidney Poitier) contemplating the death of her aunt as she wanders through the Paris twilight. The World War II drama, The Old Gun (1975) starring Philippe Noiret and Romy Schneider, also won awards and critical praise, and some cinema buffs tout For Those I Loved (1983) as a favorite late work; it was based on the true story of Polish Holocaust survivor Martin Gray and starred Michael York, Brigitte Fossey and Macha Meril. But none of these lead to wider exposure for Enrico’s work in the U.S. If Enrico is remembered at all today, it is for The Twilight Zone broadcast of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
As for Ambrose Bierce, he is probably more famous for The Devil’s Dictionary than he is for his Civil War stories. Below are some typical entries from it that demonstrate his often wicked, misanthropic sense of humor:
Marriage: The state or condition of community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all two
Egotist: A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Bierce would actually make an ideal subject for a biographical film and he remains an enigmatic figure today. In addition to having fought during the Civil War (including the battle of Chickamauga), he was a noted author, satirist, poet, editor and journalist of his era (he once wrote for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner). Bierce’s contempt for religion, politics and social mores made him a highly controversial character and the end of his life is shrouded in mystery. He disappeared without a trace in 1914 after telling some of his peers he was going to Mexico to ride with Pancho Villa and report on his campaign. Rumors abound that he was either executed by a firing squad south of the border or committed suicide but no one really knows, although it is fascinating to read the many theories surround his death.
One thing is certain. Enrico’s In the Midst of Life is an excellent introduction to his work and a splendid visual recreation of Bierce’s insider perspective on the Civil War. Janus Films was the original distributor of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge so it is not unlikely that The Criterion Collection could make Enrico’s film available on Blu-Ray some day. Unfortunately, In the Midst of Life is not available in the U.S. on any format but if you own an all-region DVD player, you can still buy the French version (no English language or subtitle option) entitled La Riviere du Hibou from M6 Video via amazon.fr.
Other Links of Interest: