Something recently came across my cluttered work-desk which put me thinking about one of my favorite authors and, incidentally, one of the great writers of American letters, Ambrose Bierce.
The object in question was an audio gem produced by a company called American Listeners Theatre. The CD is a recording of three Civil War tales by Ambrose Bierce, including an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, A Son of the Gods and A Horseman in the Sky. Titled “Ambrose Bierce, Live on Tour” it is performed by Timothy Patrick Miller, an actor of no small talent, who, it is said, is to Bierce what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain. The version I heard was a commemorative performance held at the Union League, in Philadelphia. The presentation is very straightforward—just the human voice and the work of an acknowledged master of the written word. No doubt the producers of the CD could have overdubbed all sorts of computer gimmickry and sound effects, but when your material is as good as this, such trickery is not only unnecessary, it actually detracts from the drama.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should admit that I have a more than passing interest in Ambrose Bierce, since I have been working for several years now on a biography of his wartime career during the Late Unpleasantness. It is a curious fact that, as influential as that era was on the author and as famous as his war fiction is, no one before has hitherto taken an accurate in depth look at his military service and his role in those momentous historical events.
As soon as my editors work their gnome-like magic and transform my manuscript into book form, perhaps we shall share some of the revelations about Good Soldier Bierce. Residents of the Mid-South, especially Nashville and its environs, should be particularly interested, as Bierce was in and out of Nashville throughout the war. In fact, “A Son of the Gods” takes place during the Battle of Nashville.
For now, however, I highly recommend Mr. Miller’s dramatic readings of Bierce’s works. Another of Bierce’s works is on a CD called A Civil War Trinity, which feature three non-fiction pieces, one of which is Bierce’s “What I Saw of Shiloh,” also through American Listeners Theatre.
Several of Bierce’s war stories have been rendered into film and while they may all be quite good, by my lights I think the best version was his masterpiece, Ironically, it was not made by some big Hollywood Studio, with star-studded cast (no doubt they were too busy, then as now, filming car chases) but rather was made in France by Film du Centaure in 1962 and directed by Robert Enrico, and has scarcely any spoken word to tell the tale. It was later edited for American television and broadcast on the Twilight Zone in black and white in 1964. The film not only won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but an Oscar as well. Both versions of the short are on YouTube, however if you want a clean print without the pixies bedeviling it, try Mubi’s version. Somewhere there is color print of this film, as I once saw it in film class, but I could find no record of that version.
Now, if your taste does not run to grainy old French shorts (or at least ones where they keep their clothes on), I highly recommend a modern musical version of the story by a group called Babybird, who have put the visual story to their song “Unloveable.” The look of this video is quite authentic and could easily have been shot in Tennessee or northern Alabama; it was actually shot in Herts, England and Babybird is a British group.
The music video was directed by Johnny Depp and if this is a sample of his directing ability, we can only hope he switches to behind the camera again very soon. The “Unloveable” music video is available on YouTube.
If you like creepy tales of the Civil War, needless to say, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War is your cup of tea; no one has seen fit to turn it into audio or video yet, but I’m open to suggestion.