How The Twilight Zone And A Literary Classic Helped Inspire Jacob's Ladder

The "life flashing before their eyes" genre of storytelling is usually met with the general criticism of lazy writing. But when it's done well, as "Jacob's Ladder" was in 1990, the result can be disorienting and bleak in the best of ways. Written by "Ghost" scribe Bruce Joel Rubin, the Adrian Lyne-directed psychological drama concerns Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam vet beset by increasingly grotesque visions, plunging him into a hellscape in which the veil between reality and lunacy wears thin. The movie enjoyed mild box office success, but a robust afterlife as a cult masterpiece.

Few are more excited about the film's sustained success than Lyne, who spoke to Coming Soon on the 30th anniversary of its release and compared its experience to that of reading an Ambrose Bierce short story for the first time (which was adapted into one of Lyne's favorite movies):

"There was a book called 'Incident at Owl Creek,' and there was a good short film that was based on it, and I was always fascinated by that idea of not watching what you think you're watching. I think funny enough 'Jacob's Ladder' was a movie that sort of needed to be seen twice, because I think if you just saw it the first time, you spent a lot of time trying to work out what you've seen. But the idea of what you're doing is watching a man's dying process, really, while he remembers his wife and kid and while he imagines a life with Jezzie that he's never had. So that was fun to do, and that's what happened in 'The Incident at Owl Creek.' You think he's got away and you understand that what you've seen was literally while he's dropping while he's being hanged."

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Note: Spoilers follow for "The Twilight Zone." Proceed with caution.

Created by Rod Serling, "The Twilight Zone" is one of the most influential sci-fi TV series of all time, using monsters, doppelgangers, ghosts, and fortune-telling machines to carry messages on the human condition. Serling wrote 92 of its 156 episodes over the series' run on CBS from 1959 to 1964, all oscillating between reality and unreality, sentiment and tension.

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is one of the few episodes not written by Serling or his frequent collaborator Richard Matheson. Originally an 1891 short story by Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce, "Owl Creek Bridge" was adapted into a short film in 1961 by French filmmaker Robert Enrico. The story follows a civilian named Peyton Farquhar (Roger Jacquet), who is being prepared for execution by hanging from the bridge of the title. As the Union soldiers deploy orders (the only real soundtrack of the story other than the sounds of the woods), Farquhar thinks of his wife and children at home. His ensuing escape and reunification with his loved ones turns out to be a fantasy, one last final synapse of Farquhar's brain before we snap back into reality and the noose snaps his neck.

The episode distinguishes itself from the rest of the "Twilight Zone" catalog both on a structural level (the short is almost entirely silent) and in its grim desperation. There are no jokes, no ghoulies, no haunted possessions or sentient machines. Enrico's short film aired as the show's 22nd episode in the fifth season, on February 28, 1964, and made such an impression on Lyne that he kept it in mind decades later, when the opportunity arrived to showcase "a man's dying process" in the wake of another brutal war.