This article may reveal crucial plot-specific details of the movies being discussed. Read at your own risk!
Is it possible to cheat death, and escape into an alternate world in the final moments of our existence? In doing so, what are the consequences? We look at a few films where the protagonists did exactly that, and the psychological toll taken therein.
In 1890, author Ambrose Bierce penned a short story entitled “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“, about Peyton Farquhar, a Civil War Confederate sympathizer who’s condemned to be hanged by the neck off the Owl Creek Bridge. As he is pushed off the bridge, the rope breaks and Peyton falls into the river below. He unties his bonds and makes his way to dry land. He travels day and night for thirty miles to reach his home, all the while experiencing a heightened, almost superhuman awareness of his surroundings. Just as he’s about to run into his lovely wife’s arms, he feels a stunning blow on the back of his neck, and all goes dark. Peyton Farquhar’s escape turns out to be a dream experienced in the brief moments between being pushed off the bridge and having the noose snap his neck.
Bierce’s story, with its twist it-was-all-a-dream ending has influenced and inspired many films in its wake. Let’s take a look at a few prime examples:
Carnival of Souls
1962’s Carnival of Souls, begins with a car accident that sends Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) over a bridge and into a river (sound familiar?). After mysteriously surviving the crash Mary finds herself in a twilight world (with a constant spooky organ soundtrack) where everyone’s a little off-kilter. Her steadfast refusal to come to terms with reality slowly drives her mad, imagining ominous figures out to get her. She’s compelled to an abandoned pavilion where she encounters pasty ghouls in a macabre dance who force her to confront the fact that she’s been dead all along. It’s heaps of fun in a B-movie Grand Guignol style.
Since this film is in the public domain, I present it in its entirety below:
Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), the protagonist of Adrian Lyne’s 1990 psychological horror film Jacob’s Ladder is a Vietnam vet who was impaled by a bayonet during the war (and somehow mysteriously survives). He lives a grim existence with his emotionally dark girlfriend Jezebel, while secretly pining for a previous existence with his first wife and his now deceased son, Gabe. He is increasingly haunted alternately by disturbing supernatural delusions and fond memories of Gabe. As his hallucinations become more severe he discovers he never survived the Vietnam wound, and the false life he’d been living existed only in his mind during the moments before his death.
This scene represents the pinnacle of his delusional state, figuratively descending into Purgatory, as he’s carted by gurney through a dilapidated psychiatric ward.
The titular character in Richard Kelly’s 2001 film Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) narrowly misses being squashed to death when a jet engine crashes through his bedroom, because on a whim he happens to follow a man-sized rabbit named Frank out of his house. From that point forward, Donnie is taken on a bizarre spiritual journey led by Frank the Rabbit, a woman known as Grandma Death, and a watery blob emanating from his stomach, all compelling him to wreak havoc on his surroundings, generally causing people to fear and hate him. The events in Donnie’s life start to spiral out of control, ending in the deaths of at least a couple of people, including his girlfriend. Just as Donnie wonders if all this pain could have been avoided, he’s transported back in time to his bedroom on the evening of the crash. The jet engine falls through the roof, killing him, and we realize everything Donnie experienced was an alternate timeline of what could have been, had he not been killed.
2005’s Stay begins with a horrific, fiery car accident on NY’s Brooklyn Bridge (see a theme here?), and its miraculous lone survivor, Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling). The scene quickly shifts to the office of Henry’s psychiatrist Dr. Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor). Henry feels survivors’ guilt for letting his parents and girlfriend die in the crash and tells Dr. Foster that he’ll commit suicide on a predetermined date in the near future. In a variation on the theme, we follow our supposed protagonist Dr. Foster through a series of increasingly disturbing events as he tries to find Henry in time to prevent his suicide. He finally catches up with Henry at the location of the car accident on the bridge, gun in hand. But it’s too late. A shot rings out and we’re suddenly transported to Henry’s point of view, lying at the accident scene from the beginning of the film, bystanders looking over him (including Dr. Foster). He realizes Dr. Foster’s existence, and everyone Foster encountered was a figment of Henry’s imagination culled from these last moments before his death.
While not sharing the exact structure of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, the following films do share its twist ending:
The Last Temptation of Christ
The end of Martin Scorsese’s 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ places Christ on the cross at Golgotha, about to die, and asking why God has forsaken him, when he’s rescued by what appears to be an angel of the Lord. The angel tells him he does not have to be crucified, but instead will be allowed to live out his life as an ordinary man, take Mary Magdalene as his wife, father children, and die a mortal death (incidentally, this ending shocked and angered Christian fundamentalists who picketed outside screenings of the film). As Jesus lies dying, Judas Iscariot visits and asks how he could betray his sacrifice for Man’s sins by living as a mortal. Jesus discovers he’d been deceived by Satan disguised as the Lord’s angel and crawls back to Golgotha to beg God to be sacrificed. Suddenly, he’s back on the cross at his original crucifixion. Satisfied he made the right choice, he proclaims. “It is accomplished.” See the ending here:
Sam Lowry (Johnathan Pryce), the reluctant bureaucrat in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian dark comedy Brazil has been apprehended for crimes against the state and sits awaiting physical torture at the hands of his friend (Michael Palin). Then, through the rafters rappels a team of HVAC freedom fighters (led by Robert DeNiro) to rescue him. As he tries to escape the bonds of the oppressive city, the already surreal film takes on a dreamlike tone as Sam’s nightmares start to collide with his reality. When all hope looks lost, he opens a door to find himself inside a prefab shack on the back of a truck that’s being driven by his girlfriend to the safety and serenity of the bucolic countryside. They set up house in a peaceful valley, and as the camera pulls back to reveal the majestic landscape, the faces of his captors pop into view. “He’s got away from us,” one says. “I’m afraid you’re right. He’s gone,” says the other. Sam is still in the torture chair, in a catatonic stupor, physically captive, but mentally still in paradise.
1986’s Wisdom deserves mention because it slightly twists the theme again. John Wisdom (Emilio Estevez) is fresh out of college and looking for work. Unsuccessful, he decides to become a modern-day Robin Hood and rob banks to help the impoverished, which takes up the bulk of the film. The law is soon on his tail and they corner him in a college football field, where they open fire and kill him. He wakes up in his bathroom, where the film began. Everything had been a daydream he had on the morning of his first job interview. Instead of a life being experienced in the moment of death, Wisdom’s is a death experienced in a moment of reverie.
But what about Bierce’s original story?
Glad you asked! Director Robert Enrico filmed an adaptation of Bierce’s original story in 1962. It won the 1964 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short.
The human mind has an incredible facility for coping with adversity. Faced with death, the ultimate adversity, it’s easy to understand how the mind can create an escape mechanism to avoid it, and why this rather existential theme is so popular for filmmakers to explore.