An Oscar winning short, this is the second part of Robert Enrico’s trilogy of short films, based on the Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce. While An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is easily the most famous (thanks to a screening on The Twilight Zone) all three films are stunning, filled with unforgettable images, and great use of sound.
To my knowledge, the trilogy isn’t available commercially. I’ve had a VHS copy that I recorded off the 16mm prints at my college over a decade ago, and when I couldn’t find it anywhere else I figured I’d throw it up on YouTube so other people could enjoy it.
“La rivière du hibou remains the most famous of Enrico’s oeuvre. It is the tale of a man who is about to be hanged, and at the last moment, the rope magically breaks and he plunges into the water, and manages to escape. The first ten minutes or so of the film are the moments leading up to the hanging. No words are spoken, and the focus is almost entirely on the ritual and detachment of the executioners. It is clear from the onset that the person about to be hanged has not had a trial, and has had no time at all to come to terms with his fate. Desperate and confused, he can only focus on his surroundings, as he still hopes for a final chance of escape. In one of the very last moments, he cries out for who we can presume is his wife… and we realize that he will not only lose his opportunity to say goodbye to her, but she will probably never know what became of him.
By some miracle however, the rope snaps as he falls into the water, and manages to escape from the firing of his executioners. The film never quite lives up to it’s opening, and though the impressive and captivating nature of the chase is incredibly well executed, the anticipation to his death is far more tense and exciting. The roving camera of the opening, as we move behind the trees to witness the final moments of this man’s life are deceptively beautiful. The lack of sentimentality and apparently clinical nature of the proceedings really dehumanizes the characters involved in such a way that seems to completely eliminate any semblance of humanity. It becomes something of an act of God, as the camera becomes an all seeing eye, who can take any position and perspective, while a man is “punished” for seemingly no other reason than him being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite the protagonist’s fear of death and desire for life, his execution does not seem especially cruel. Though this is definitely the least dream-like (ironically…) of the three films in the trilogy, the absence of context creates a strange sense of dread and unease, thus entering the circumstances into a realm of the Gods rather than that of human law. As with all the films of the trilogy, the use of sound is pivotal. Again discussing the first part of the film, pre-execution, sound is used to create a sense of tension and dread. The sound of a chorus of singing birds opens the film, it is before dawn. The scene progressively becomes louder and more anxious, as the protagonist is set up for his death. The sound of men walking along a wooden bridge mirrors that of a metronome or a ticking clock (the sound of a watch is also integrated, quite beautifully, alongside a fantasy/flashback of the protagonists’ wife). The noise of the noose being tied, and the fabric wrapped around his legs to hold him still are amplified to an aching degree. The rickety wood echoes, until with a loud clack, the board is set free, and he crashes into the water below.
Though the sound remains strong throughout the film, it also tends to rely a bit too heavily on the use of voice and narration. The greatest weakness of all the films tends to be the use of language, in part because it is quite obviously dubbed. Even beyond that, the voice-over style ultimately does not seem necessary as everything is so wonderfully conveyed through the images and the voice-over seems superfluous.It is unfortunately difficult to discuss the full effects of this particular piece without revealing the ending. So, if you are either unfamiliar with the story, I recommend to stop reading now. The final revelation that the entire escape existed only in the mind of the protagonist could have easily been a cheap twist in the vein of “it was all a dream type ending”, but it is actually very affecting (on screen and in print). I think this is in part because of disrupts our perception of time and space. The timeline of the “escape” probably runs a few hours in the mind of the character, and takes up two thirds of the running time of the film. In “real time”, the entire imagined event actually only takes place within a fraction of a second, from the moment that the protagonist falls to the point that the rope gives in, presumably resulting in an instantaneous death.” – Justine Smith