In 1862, during the American Civil War, a Southern civilian is about to be hanged for attempting to sabotage a railway bridge. When the execution takes place from the bridge, the rope breaks and he begins his escape toward home.
Second episode in the three-part French anthology based on eerie Ambrose Beirce tales IN THE MIDST OF LIFE since I had first watched the last and most famous segment, AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, I opted to keep going through the film in reverse order! It is unusual that such an intrinsically American subject (since all the stories have a Civil War backdrop) be handled by European hands, but the results are both evocative and impressive. Incidentally, though the credits and opening text are in the 'original' French language, the brief instances of dialogue and singing are authentically presented in English; by the way, this bore the subtitle THE RIVER OF DEATH, which is what Chickamauga refers to.
The plot deals with a young boy's personal experiences of the conflict, and the whole makes for one of the most harrowing yet perceptive films I have seen about childhood. After playing around with the elderly black manservant of the family, he sets about roaming the countryside on his own (having kicked a wooden toy out on the porch, suggesting he was after something more exciting). Soon, shooting and cannon-fire can be heard in the distance and, as he gets deeper into the woods (even the branches look distinctly ominous now!), the kid runs straight into a decimated battalion (with the trees still smoking from all the consumed gunpowder). They move about slowly and in pain, trying to get back on their feet or giving out their last breath but, the boy being what he is, believes them to be 'putting on a show' for his benefit (at one point, the 'performance' becomes so real that a dying drummer-soldier is literally seen through the child's innocent eyes in clown outfit!). Later, when he goes back home (I was not sure where he was until I noticed the very toy he had rejected, followed by the charred corpse of his mother), he finds this has also been ransacked and set ablaze by the enemy troops; the boy is thus left all alone to ponder an uncertain future.
Admittedly, like OWL CREEK itself, the short film (lasting for 28 minutes) is only marginally horror-related but, as I said, the images of carnage are so powerful (vividly-captured by cinematographer Jean Boffety who, ironically, around this same time lent his services to a number of Pierre Etaix slapstick comedies and which I only recently caught up with as part of my ongoing Jean-Claude Carriere retrospective!) that the overall impression proves quite disturbing and undeniably haunting.
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