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Literature / An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is an 1890 short story by Ambrose Bierce.

It is set in northern Alabama in 1862 and is told in three chapters. Peyton Farquhar is a "planter"—that is, a traitorous slave-owner and plantation owner—and an enthusiastic supporter of the Southern Confederate cause in The American Civil War. As the story opens he is on the Owl Creek railroad bridge, about to be hanged by Union soldiers. At the end of Chapter I he is dropped off the bridge. Chapter II fills in How We Got Here: Farquhar, who never got around to joining the army but likes to play at being a rebel, attempted to sabotage the bridge, but was caught, the Confederate who told him about the bridge actually being a Union scout.

Chapter III is the most famous part of the story. Farquhar is dropped off the bridge but the rope snaps, plunging him into the water below. He manages to free his hands from the ropes binding them and swim away downstream as Union bullets pepper the river. Eventually he scrambles onto shore and, after many hours traipsing through the woods, arrives home at his plantation and greets his wife... or does he?

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Bierce's most famous work and one of the most famous works of 19th century American literature, and a topic in high school English classes since forever.

Adapted by French filmmaker Robert Enrico into the 1962 short film, An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge (original French title La Riviere du hibou, "The Owl River"). The movie won a Palme d'Or and an Academy Award for short film, and was later shown in its entirety on American television as an episode of The Twilight Zone, with Rod Serling's opening and closing narration added.


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Tropes:

  • Agent Provocateur: The gray-clad soldier who stops at the Farquhar mansion turns out to be a Union scout, obviously sent to flush out any civilians with sabotage on their minds.
  • Daydream Surprise: Farquhar's escape and flight home is an extended daydream.
  • Dead All Along: Turns out Farquhar died at the end of the first chapter of the story.
  • Downer Ending: Chapter III was an extended dying dream; Farquhar is hanging from the bridge, dead.
  • Dying Dream: The Ur-Example and still one of the most famous instances in fiction. All of Chapter III turns out to be the dying dream Farquhar had in the final second where he was dropped and had his neck snapped on the bridge.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: Farquhar didn't escape after all; Chapter III is a long Dying Dream.
  • Flashback: Chapter II gives some more detail about Farquhar and includes the scene where he encounters the supposed Confederate scout and hears about Union troops reaching Owl Creek and the bridge.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • There's actually a fair amount of hints towards the end that something is not right. The road is described as unnaturally straight, like an "illustration of perspective", and completely empty. Farquhar sees "golden stars...grouped in strange constellations" and hears "whispers from an unknown tongue." He can't feel the road beneath his feet. And at the end he just sort of appears at the front of his mansion, as if he'd "recovered from a delirium."
    • And apart from that, there is one gigantic hint. Chapter III opens with the following sentence: "As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead."
  • Gothic Horror: Ranks right up there with Edgar Allan Poe as one of the most iconic examples in literature.
  • Gray Eyes: Farquhar notes the gray eyes of a man taking aim at him with a rifle and thinks about how people with gray eyes are the best sharpshooters. (This is another bit of foreshadowing that Chapter III is unreality. How could Farquhar make out the eye color of the man sniping at him from far away?)
  • The Man They Couldn't Hang: Well, he thought he was this.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: All of Chapter III is a dying dream. And for that matter he never even had a chance to burn the bridge, as the "Confederate soldier" who told him about it was actually a Union scout.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: A Dying Dream variant. Farquhar has a dream that seems to last hours, when actually it all takes place in one or two seconds at most.


Tropes found in the 1962 short film:

  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Right after Farquhar surfaces from the river, there are some extreme close ups of stuff like dew dripping from leaves, a caterpillar crawling across a leaf, and a spider wrapping up his lunch. This is a nod to the literary Blade Of Grass Cut in the story, in which Peyton takes acute notice of the minute details of his surroundings.
  • Foreshadowing: The film mostly lacks the cues found in the story and listed under Foreshadowing above, but it does have one major clue of its own: the gates of Farquhar's mansion open by themselves.
  • Imagine Spot: Before he takes the drop, there is a brief shot of Farquhar imagining his wife and children in the front of his mansion.
  • Narrator: In the original theatrical version only, there are bits of narration taken from the Bierce story, like the part where Farquhar muses about how he could escape if only he could free his hands. All of this was taken out of the Twilight Zone television version.
  • Ominous Fog: The scene at the bridge is fog-bound with mist rising from the river, a detail which sets the mood but is absent from the Bierce story.
  • Ominous Owl: A hooting owl sets the ominous mood at the start of the story, appropriately enough for Owl Creek.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Excises the Part II flashback, dramatizing only Farquhar's hanging and escape. Instead, the necessary info is imparted with a single shot of a poster announcing that the penalty for sabotage by civilians is death.
  • Re-Cut: The Twilight Zone version was re-edited for television. Several shots received minor edits to make the film a little bit shorter to fit in the time allotted. More significantly, all of the original soundtrack—Farquhar's Inner Monologue, the chatter of the soldiers at the bridge, the music, and even a song—was removed.
  • Silence Is Golden: In the Twilight Zone version there is no dialogue except for the shouts of Union soldiers as Farquhar gets away.
  • Translation Convention: Inconsistently applied in the original French theatrical version. The chatter of the Union soldiers is in English, but Farquhar's internal monologue is in French.
  • Whip Pan: The camera spins around as Farquhar struggles in the river, a duplication of a scene from the story in which he's caught in a vortex and spun around.
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