An Execution in Alabama

La Riviere du Houbou
The French short film version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, “La Riviere du Houbou” by Robert Enrico, won both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar.

Something recently came across my cluttered work-desk which put me thinking about one of my favorite authors–and one of the great writers of American letters–Ambrose Bierce.

The object in question is 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, 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. The presentation is 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 Ambrose Bierce’s word-craft, such trickery is not only unnecessary, it detracts from the drama.

I should admit that I have a more than passing interest in Ambrose Bierce, since I toiled in the archives and on battlefields near and far researching the wartime career of Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce 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 had hitherto taken an accurate in depth look at his military service and his role in those momentous historical events. To be sure, many professors of American Literature have expounded on “Almighty God Bierce,” and their efforts are by no means to be denigrated; but the craft of History is not the craft of Literature; Biography is their illegitimate offspring, which must be handled with care

But I digress; for now, suffice it to say, I highly recommend Mr. Miller’s dramatic readings of Bierce. Another selection from Bierce’s work 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; unfortunately, this audio is out of print. However, a newer edition of Bierce’s fiction and non-fiction works on audio has been put together called, TELLING TALES OF CIVIL WARRIORS, and at three hours plus narration, there is more than enough for you to listen to if you would traverse the Civil War battlefields with Lt. Bierce from Nashville, Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama. It is available through Amazon’s subscriptions service Audible.

If you are not ready to listen to three hours of Bierce quite yet, “A Bit of Chickamuaga” is available as a free sample from ALT via Audible. This particular quote is familiar to readers of my bio of Bierce, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, from my chapter on Bierce’s role in that fight.

If you prefer the pictorial medium, be aware that several of Bierce’s war stories have been rendered into film over the years and while some versions are very good, by my lights I think the best rendition of them 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 on a rather meager budget in France in 1962, and directed by Robert Enrico.

Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge 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.  Unfortunately, the original 28 minute French cut of the film is virtually unobtainable on YouTube now; mostly what you get is the version edited for American TV.  Amazon Prime now offers a version of it which I have yet to watch, so I can’t say whether they went back to the original French color print or did the TZ B&W edition of it.  Fortunately, his other two Bierce masterpieces Chickamauga and The Mocking Bird are easily accessible on YouTube.

Now, if your taste does not run to grainy old French shorts (or at least ones where they keep their clothes on), I refer you to 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 authentic and could easily have been shot in Tennessee or northern Alabama.  It was actually shot in Herts, England, however: 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 very soon. The “Unloveable” music video is available on YouTube.

If you like uncanny tales of the Civil War, needless to say, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War is your cup of tea.  Sadly, no one has seen fit to turn it into audio or video yet, but I’m open to suggestions!
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
For the full story of Ambrose Bierce’s experiences with war and death, and the Civil War, go to Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press.