Untitled from David Cairns on Vimeo.

To be honest, I’m not so much surprised that Ambrose Bierce’s work has inspired so many filmmakers, as I am surprised that it hasn’t inspired more. I guess the fact that he eschewed long form storytelling (as a matter of principle, to hear him tell it) is a factor, but so for the most part did Poe and Lovecraft, who are much more frequently filmed. I can’t account for that.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was most famously adapted by Robert Enrico, and the resulting short became, somehow or other, an episode of The Twilight Zone, exposing it to a much wider audience that Enrico’s other two Bierce films, CHICKAMAUGA and THE MOCKINGBIRD. But for my money, Charles Vidor’s version, entitled THE BRIDGE, is much much better.

It’s available on the extraordinary box set UNSEEN CINEMA, which you should all immediately buy.

The bit that really grabs me, in a film full of fascinating visual ideas, is the superimposition of the drumsticks beating the skin over the hero’s chest. Two images united to create more than one idea and emotion — by showing the drum and the man at the same time, anticipation is heightened, but the beating of the drum comes to stand for the racing of the man’s heartbeat, evoking something a silent film can’t make you hear, or feel. That’s CLEVER.

Some imaginative trope of that kind was surely required when Tony Scott filmed ONE OF THE MISSING, another of Bierce’s Civil War horror stories, but although he pulls off some good angles and generates a fair bit of suspense (you can see this short on the CINEMA 16 collection) he never gets near evoking the striking passage in Bierce’s tale where the soldier, trapped by rubble with his fallen rifle pointing straight at his head, primed and ready to fire, imagines the sensation of the bullet passing slowly through his brain…

Vidor really displays moments of similar zest in GILDA (the giant dice in the opening shot) and I guess in COVER GIRL, also LADIES IN RETIREMENT and BLIND ALLEY. When the project roused his enthusiasm, he was quite an expressionist.

Further reading: The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

Of course, Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionaryis wickedly funny, but less known than either his supernatural tales and his war stories are his grotesque, jet-black tall tales, which are quite incredibly sick and extremely amusing.

Further further reading: more from me at Limerwrecks here, here and here. What rhymes with TINGLER?

Further viewing: Unseen Cinema – Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 An amazing treasure trove of obscure fragments of wonderment.

11 Responses to “Occurrence”

  1. Re: “his grotesque, jet-black tall tales, which are quite incredibly sick and extremely amusing”

    Is there a specific collection of these you can recommend? I’m only familiar with the Devil’s Dictionary.

    The Marx Brothers almost cribbed a line from Bierce. An early draft of A Night At the Opera had the following exchange:

    Guili-Guili: This is intolerable. I am beside myself.
    Groucho: Move over. You’re in bad company.

    Those who remember Bierce’s definition of “Alone” (“in bad company”) will see the inspiration. Groucho was a fan of the Dictionary, so it’s possible he might have suggested the line. I’m sorry it was never used.

  2. I guess Bierce never became fashionable. I admit that I haven’t read much of his work myself. I have difficulty enough with Poe and Lovecraft I can’t seem to get into at all. Hawthorne’s my favourite of 19th Century scary story tellers.

  3. While Bierce certainly slots neatly between Poe and Lovecraft, his prose is positively taciturn by comparison, as befits his more stoic personality.

    His tall tales, which I can’t lay my hand on at present, otherwise I’d quote at length, are collected in the Complete Stories (see link above).

    I would dearly love an audiobook of The Devil’s Dictionary read by Groucho.

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    A longtime favorite from the D.D.:

    “Cabbage, n.: A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.”

  5. “Chemise, n.: don’t know what it means.”

    And there’s something about a cat being “an indestructible soft automaton designed to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.” Sounds almost William Burroughs-like, except that Bill was a great cat-lover.

  6. I’ll have to send this to my father: he loves the original Bierce story and had me read it at a very impressionable age.

    The film does a wonderful job of giving visual life to a story that exists so powerfully as an interior experience for both protagonist and reader. I love the extended tracking shots where the prisoner joyously gathers flowers and plays at soldiering – both the performance and the camera movement convey the sense of exultant relief.

  7. Vidor had a real delight in expressionist effects, perhaps more strongly displayed here than in anything else he did. Next to Gilda, this is my favourite of his works.

  8. Hmm, not certain if that one contains the tall tales. They’re often given short shrift, which is a shame because they really illuminate the author and are horribly entertaining. If you can get a Complete Short Stories and an Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, you’re all set.

  9. Ken Bullock Says:

    Bierce lived in San Rafael, 20 miles north of the Golden Gate, in a neighborhood my father later grew up in, & not far from where I was born during the Korean War. Bierce would take San Quentin ferry to the Embarcadero in SF, where he worked at the Examiner Building.

    I pored over Bierce’s stories as a boy. One of the few American writers of note–Paul Bowles & poet Jack Spicer are two more–who were truly influenced by Poe’s thought, not just his mannerisms …

    I knew filmmaker Sam Fuller the last decade or so of his life. One night, in a freezing wind, we were walking in NYC after a film conference at the French Institute. I told him I’d thought of writing something about him, comparing him to Bierce–both “cynical” journalists who had traumatic experiences in war–& asked him what he thought.

    Sam gripped the sleeve of my coat. “I’m crazy about Bierce!” he said.

  10. Wow! A Fuller/Bierce civil war movie would have been quite something: maybe The Lusty Days would have had some of that attitude. But I’m thinking, combine several Bierces into one narrative: One of the Fallen would make a great suspense sequence.

    Robert Enrico’s Bierce trilogy is really fine, btw.

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