Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Harold Swanton Part Four: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge [5.13]

by Jack Seabrook

On Sunday, December 20, 1959, CBS broadcast the Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation of Ambrose Bierce's famous short story, "An Occurrence at Own Creek Bridge." In the decades that followed, this short film has been eclipsed by a French adaptation that aired in 1964 on The Twilight Zone. This is unfortunate, because the version shown on Alfred Hitchcock Presents is outstanding and deserves more attention.

The short story, which was first published in the newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, on July 13, 1890, begins as Peyton Farquhar stands upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, about to be hanged by Federal Army soldiers during the American Civil War. A slave owner devoted to the southern cause, he had been visited by a Federal spy and enticed into an attempt to burn down the Owl Creek Bridge, an important railroad structure that marked the furthest point of advance of Federal troops. A sergeant steps off the other end of the plank and Farquhar falls between two railroad ties, but suddenly the rope breaks and he plunges into the river below. Swimming for his life, the planter succeeds in avoiding rifle and cannon fire and reaches the bank further down the river. He spends a day making his way through a forest until, his tongue swollen with thirst, he approaches the gate of his home. Just as he is about to embrace his wife, he feels a blow upon his neck--and he hangs, dead, swinging "gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge."

Ronald Howard as Peyton Farquhar
Bierce opens with a detailed description of the scene of the impending hanging, providing enough details to make the situation clear to the reader. All is formal, from the "well-fitting frock coat" of the condemned man to the careful, step-by-step preparations of the soldiers. Even the ticking of Farquhar's watch sounds to him like "the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer." Just before he drops, he thinks of how he could escape by swimming in the stream, taking to the woods, and making his way home to his family.

Bierce then shifts gears and provides details of Farquhar's background and how he was tricked by a Federal scout masquerading as a Confederate soldier into planning to set the bridge on fire. The writer then returns to the execution, leaving out any description of what Farquhar actually did to land his neck in a noose. The physical sensation of being hanged is described, even to the man swinging "like a vast pendulum."

Juano Hernandez as Josh
Then, suddenly, he falls into the river and, miraculously, is able to free his hands from their bonds and escape, despite being shot at by rifle and cannon. Once again, details are exquisite: he hears gnats humming, dragon-flies' wings beating, and water-spiders swimming. He is a hero, at least in his own mind, able to make an almost invisible escape.

Thrown onto a river bank, he walks all day through a forest that "seemed interminable," finally locating a road by nightfall. In the course of his day's journey from bridge to river to forest, he never sees another human being. Near the end, his neck is in pain, his eyes are congested, his tongue is swollen, and he cannot "feel the roadway beneath his feet." Bierce is describing a man suffocating in a noose, even though Farquhar does not appreciate that fact. He arrives home "in the morning sunshine," approaches his wife, and "all is darkness and silence."

The last paragraph is a single sentence, brutal in its simplicity: "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge." Bierce's brilliant description of the dream of a man in the moments before his death is both a mystery and an adventure story, packed with clues along the way that, when viewed in retrospect, signal the truth of the "occurrence."

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) was born in Ohio and began working at a newspaper at age 15. He enlisted in the Union Army at the start of the Civil War and, despite being injured in battle, served until 1865. By the 1880s, he had become a prominent journalist in San Francisco. He is remembered today for his many short stories, most of which were written between 1888 and 1891, and which often dealt with the Civil War or horror themes. He disappeared in Mexico in 1914. Many films, television programs, and radio shows have been adapted from his works, and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" has been filmed several times; Kurt Vonnegut once called it the "greatest American short story."

Harold Swanton adapted Bierce's tale for the small screen, adding new elements that increase its haunting quality. The show begins with voiceover narration by Farquhar, who sets the date as 1862. We see a hat flowing down a creek with the current until it disappears among the timbers supporting a bridge. There is a cut to soldiers setting a plank in place; it juts out from the bridge and over the creek. Another soldier ties a rope into a hangman's noose. This scene is beautifully shot from slightly below, the camera looks up at the soldiers framed by the early morning sky. An officer deferentially addresses the prisoner as Mr. Farquhar and apologizes for the delay, suggesting that the prisoner's social station is higher than that of his executioners.

The screen dissolves to a flashback, twelve hours before, at Farquhar's palatial Southern mansion. Hattie, a doting, older, house slave serves him dinner by candlelight. He is alone and seems downcast; master and slave share their sorrow at being widowed. Of course, this scene (and others in the show) depict an idealized relationship between master and slave of the sort popularized in Gone with the Wind. Farquhar looks across the room at a harp and hears music in his head, recalling his late wife, whose portrait hangs over a side table.

A soldier rides up and Farquhar goes outside to draw water from a well and give him a drink. Farquhar mentions that his leg was injured at Shiloh (a bloody battle in Tennessee on April 6, 1862) and he thinks he's "'home for keeps.'" The soldier elicits information about the location of Confederate troops and plants the seed in Farquhar's mind about the strategic importance of Owl Creek Bridge when he comments that the Union Army is on its way to Vicksburg (a chronological error--this would not happen until the next year), warning Farquhar that anyone caught near the bridge will be "'hanged on the spot.'"

James Coburn as the spy
After the soldier leaves, Farquhar speaks with Hattie and confirms that an old, hidden trail still leads to that particular bridge. He then visits the tent of Jeff, a friend and officer in the Confederate Army, who angrily warns him against trying to burn down Owl Creek Bridge. Jeff's tirade ends when Farquhar reveals that his wife and baby died a week ago, setting him up as a man with nothing to lose. Jeff accuses him of having a death wish, and perhaps this is true.

After night has fallen, Farquhar approaches the bridge from the brush below but is caught and shot in the arm before he can set fire to the structure. In another possible chronological error, he holds a can of "Short's Solidified Greek Fire"; historically, Levi Short invented this device in 1863, updating a type of incendiary device that had been known since ancient times. We then return to the present and the extended flashback concludes with Farquhar once again on the verge of being hanged. In the short story, the flashback or memory sequence is much shorter and has significant differences from what Swanton puts in his teleplay. There is no slave, and Farquhar's wife is very much alive-- the couple are sitting on the porch together when the soldier arrives, and Mrs. Farquhar gives him a drink of water. In the TV show, Swanton creates sympathy for Farquhar by having him report that his wife recently died, presumably in childbirth, and adds the character of Hattie, who shares his sorrow and whose late husband will play an important role in the second half of the show. There is also no visit to the Confederate officer's tent in the short story; Swanton adds this to allow Farquhar to explain what happened to his wife and to suggest that he may have a death wish and provide a reason why.

Ruby Goodwin as Hattie
Up on Owl Creek Bridge, Farquhar sees the worn, frayed rope and hopes that it will break. He falls and the sky grows hazy; suddenly, we see him in the creek, removing the noose from around his neck and avoiding heavy gunfire from the bridge. Suspense is created by having the soldiers give chase and by cutting back and forth between them and Farquhar making his escape. Soon he is alone, and two short paragraphs in the story are replaced by a long, haunting sequence in Swanton's teleplay. Farquhar wanders through a forest and hears dogs barking ahead of him. Suddenly, he hears a man singing and comes upon Josh, Hattie's husband, whom we know to be dead from her comments earlier in the show.

Farquhar begs the slave to hide him from the soldiers and they walk off together, Josh singing the prison work song, "Po Lazarus" (later featured in the opening scene of the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou), as they follow an unfamiliar trail that Josh promises will "'get you home safe and sound.'" The home to which Josh refers, however, may not be the home Farquhar expects. At one point in their journey on foot, Josh walks off to speak to two Union Soldiers on horseback and Farquhar is suddenly set upon by the same spy who visited him at his home the day before; they wrestle and Farquhar appears to kill the spy with his bare hands. He walks off once again with Josh and they come upon more Union troops sitting around a campfire, yet Josh reassures Farquhar and they walk past the soldiers, who do not even notice. It is at this point that the viewer's sense that something is not right begins to get stronger and, in retrospect, it appears that the characters in the second half of the show are all ghosts: Josh, the Union soldiers, and perhaps even the man with whom Farquhar wrestles, since the plantation owner seems to have little trouble besting him in hand to hand combat, despite being exhausted from nearly being hanged and from being on the run all day.

Kenneth Tobey as Jeff
This dreamlike sequence in which Farquhar travels with Josh is hauntingly beautiful, and it is highlighted by the mournful singing of Juano Hernandez as Josh. As Josh nears the end of his song, singing about Lazarus going home to stay at last, Farquhar stops, exhausted, on the side of a hill. Josh keeps walking and singing and disappears over the crest of the hill. Farquhar climbs to the top and sees his home. His wife (whom we know is dead) emerges from the house and comes toward him; as he gazes lovingly at her, we suddenly see his neck snap in the noose, and the film flashes to negative and back to positive. We see him hanging from the bridge and we hear the sound of military drums and the creaking of the rope as his body gently swings back and forth. The Union officer gives the order to cut him down and the screen fades to black.

Harold Swanton's teleplay for "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" expands a short story and changes its focus brilliantly, turning it from a tale with a sudden, shocking ending into a mournful lament where the mind of a man about to die is filled with ghosts. In the first scene, he talks with Hattie about their respective, dead spouses and, when he is hanging from Owl Creek Bridge, he imagines that both of those beloved people have returned to life. In a way, the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version of Bierce's story is more hopeful than the original, since Farquhar in the story is yanked out of a brief reverie, while Farquhar in the TV show spends a long, leisurely time making his way home and encounters two loved ones who have died. One may even imagine that the happy scene continues even after we see his body swinging from the bridge, since in his mind he had already, albeit unknowingly, joined the ranks of the dead.

Douglas Kennedy
Great acting, a great script, and great direction highlight this episode. Small details help to deepen the story and the addition of the character of Josh adds to it immeasurably; Farquhar's journey with him is like a dream, as if an experienced ghost is guiding a newly-arrived ghost toward an acceptance of death. This idealized relationship between master and slave is appealing, whitewashing the reality of the Old South and replacing it with a comforting, familiar fantasy. Swanton solves the problem of a short story that is too brief to support a 25-minute film by adding new characters, some of whom turn out to be spirits.

Robert Stevenson (1905-1986), the director, worked in film from 1932 to 1976 and on TV from 1952 to 1982. Much of his output in the last decades of his career was for Disney, but he also directed seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Long Shot." For some reason, six of the episodes he directed were during the show's first season and he returned in the fifth season to direct just this one episode.

Brad Weston
Starring as Peyton Farquhar is Ronald Howard (1918-1996), son of British actor Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind). Born in London, he was on screen from 1936 to 1975 and starred as Sherlock Holmes on a TV series that ran in the 1954-55 season. He was on Thriller three times and Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice.

Juano Hernandez (1896-1970) is a standout as Josh. Born in Puerto Rico, he was a circus performer, boxer, and actor on radio, in minstrel shows, and on Broadway. He was on screen from 1914 to 1970, at first in race films, made for a Black audience, and later in mainstream films and TV shows. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

In smaller roles:
  • Kenneth Tobey (1917-2002) as Jeff, the Confederate officer who tries to dissuade Farquhar from his plan to destroy the bridge; Tobey served in the Air Force in WWII, acted on Broadway, and had a long screen career from 1945 to 2005. He starred in a TV series called Whirlybirds (1957-60) and appeared in the science fiction films, The Thing from Another World (1951), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). He was also on Night Gallery. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.
  • Douglas Kennedy (1915-1973) as the Union officer in charge of Farquhar's execution; he served in the Army in WWII and was on screen from 1952 to 1973. In addition to a role on The Outer Limits, he was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "A Little Sleep."
  • James Coburn (1928-2002) as the Union spy who visits Farquhar at home; he was a major star whose screen career lasted from 1953 to 2002. He was in films such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and Our Man Flint (1966), and he appeared on The Twilight Zone. He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "The Jokester." A website is devoted to him here.
  • Brad Weston (1928-1999) is the Union corporal who ties the noose; on screen from 1958 to 1977, he appeared on Star Trek and on three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Road Hog."
  • Ruby Goodwin (1903-1961) as Hattie, the house slave; she had a brief career on screen from 1955 to 1961 and did not appear in any other episodes of the Hitchcock series. She wrote at least two books: From My Kitchen Window (a 1942 book of poetry) and It's Good to Be Black (a 1953 autobiography).
Read "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" for free online here. Watch the TV show here or order the DVD here. Read the Genre Snaps take on this episode here.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Season 5, episode 13, CBS, 20 Dec. 1959.
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Swain, Craig. “Greek Fire Shells at Charleston: Horrific Incendiary or ‘Humbug’?” To the Sound of the Guns, 16 Dec. 2013,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

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Grant said...

I never thought to connect it with his social position, but I've always liked that courtesy between Farquhar and the Union officer. One line that always stays with me is when they're halfway through the ceremony and the officer says "You're doing just fine, Mr. Farquhar" without any trace of sarcasm.

I don't know all his roles, but one of Kenneth Tobey's best roles has to be in the KUNG FU episode "Aleathea." Coincidentally, it's also about someone close to being hanged (the Caine character himself), and Tobey plays the man who'll be doing it, but against his will.

Jack Seabrook said...

That is a nice touch. Kung Fu is a good series. I watched a few some years back and they held up well.