November 10, 2011

Anachronisms in the Hell On Wheels Pilot

Please be aware that this post contains spoilers.

Hell on Wheels is a new period drama on AMC that is set in 1865 and involves the building of the trans-continental railroad.  It airs on Sundays at 10:00 p.m. EST.  You can also watch the full first episode on AMC's website, here, until November 30th.

My post(s) on this show will focus primarily on aspects of the history portrayed. I am selecting items that catch my attention and discussing whether I think they contain anachronistic elements.

Before I get to history-related stuff, though, I want to bring up one thing first because I busted out laughing when I heard it, and yet I haven't seen anyone else point this out.  In the scene where Durant is having a conversation with two men about why the railroad should not be built straight, Durant says to one of them, "You're fired, get out. I said, get out!" And then that guy just walks off, but... THEY ARE ON A MOVING TRAIN.   Even if there were another car to go sit in and pout, that is just silly.

Doesn't look like there are any cars behind this one.
No door on this end of the car.

"You're fired, get out."  Jump out the moving train and do a barrel roll, good luck!

  • There were far too many people not wearing hats while outdoors.  The English girl in the Nebraska meadow with her surveyor boyfriend? No hat.  The three prostitutes at the railroad camp that the preacher looked down his nose at? No hats. Mr. Johnson, the railroad camp manager guy that got his throat cut at the end?  No hat the first time we meet him when Cullen gets off the train.  The second time we see Common's character Elam laboring with the other former slaves? No hat. And on and on.  I don't expect everyone to wear a hat in every scene, but in outdoor scenes I generally do, so this bugged me.

  • Mr. Johnson tells Cullen that he was a copperhead before the Civil War.  A copperhead was someone who was against the war, and typically urged for an immediate peace solution with the South.  So could one be against the war before the war started?  Remember secession and the War were not one and the same.  It is certainly possible one could be a supporter of Southern secession before the war broke out, and be against going to war with the South before war officially began.  It isn't like the outbreak of war was a great sudden surprise to everyone.  Still, was the term "copperhead" in use before the war?  Online encyclopedias (example) state that the term was first used in print on July 20, 1861 in the New York Tribune, but after thirty minutes of searching I've apparently found an earlier example.  On July 6, 1861, the Gazette and Sentinel of Iberville, Louisiana shows that "copperhead" was already being thrown around on the floor of Congress as early as July 2, 1861, only a month and a half after the war began.  

    The term seems to be used here almost in passing.  It is not defined to readers, nor is it placed in quotations.  So it seems the etymology of this term isn't exactly nailed down by historians.  Because of this, it is possible that the term came into use slightly before sectional hostilities officially broke out in mid-April of 1861. So if there is any plausibility at all to Johnson's whole hipster-copperhead backstory it's by lucky accident.  Regardless, the character saying he sympathized with the Southern cause before the war is not what makes his backstory seem so awkward.  Rather, it's that the character also enthusiastically fought for the Union.  Okay, maybe he was drafted, but, urgh -- This character obviously wasn't meant to be this complex, because they killed him off so damn fast.  Why did they even bother saying he was a copperhead in the first place, if he is supposed to be one of the bad guys that killed Cullen's wife?  Was it a convoluted way to make him have common ground with Cullen?  Cullen would have talked to him regardless of this, because he wanted to know more about his wife's murder.  That's what brought Cullen all the way out there in the first place.  Really there is no reason for it.  It just seems like the writers tried to throw in as much period terminology as they could, consequences be damned.

    Additionally, what the hell is with Cullen being a Confederate who freed his slaves?  Did they want an anti-hero, thinking that simply being a Confederate would automatically make him one, but then couldn't commit all the way?  Why, because that would be a deal breaker to a lot of the audience, to root for a former slaveowner?  If so, then why not just say he was a Confederate that did not own slaves at all?  There were PLENTY of those and certainly a lot more plausible.  But then that would beg the question of why the hell someone would fight for the Confederacy if they weren't fighting to keep their own personal slaves, and that would mean taking a more than two dimensional look at the causes of the Civil War (which I seriously doubt is going to happen). Still, isn't it actually more mind-boggling on paper, working off the elementary-school-curriculum version of the Civil War, that a man who freed his own slaves would go on to fight for the Confederacy...? Whatever.  /handwave, nothing to see here!
  • There are electric lights on the wall, fifteen years before they were invented.  Making that shit candle-shaped does not really excuse this one.  Gas lamps are present but aren't lit. 

  • Cullen says "So, what, God just up and punches his ticket to heaven?"   Ticket punching machines used for information storage were invented in the 1880s by Herman Hollerith.  The inventor got his idea from how railroad tickets were punched.  So was ticket punching used on railroad tickets in 1865?  The earliest patent improving railroad tickets that I could find which references punching of tickets dates to December of 1868, and it is a patent for an actual hand-held ticket punching device.  There are patents which follow chronologically after this one (in 1869 and 1870) which claim to improve how tickets are punched.  Does this mean tickets were being punched before this 1868 device was patented? Possibly, but three entire years prior? More importantly, if the practice had begun as early as 1865, would it be so widespread that the phrase "punch a ticket" in this sense would already be in the colloquial lexicon of Americans?  I'm doubtful.

  • Sean McGinnes, one of the Irish men on the train, asks Cullen if he is a "gunslinger."  The word gunslinger was not in use in the 19th century. It originated and became popular in the 20th century through cinema.  According to Wikipedia the term is considered as originating in 1920 in a western movie called Drag Harlan.  Perhaps the best proof I can offer of this claim (it is made on Wikipedia after all) is demonstrated when you search for the term "gunslinger" on the Library of Congress newspaper database, which contains papers from 1836-1922. When you do so, only two pages pop up. One is an OCR transcription error, the other is a 1921 advertisement for the movie Drag Harlan.  For comparison, when you search for "gunfighter" you get over 350 results; "border ruffian" in quotations over 1,700.  Searching for the word "gunslinger" in the google books archive brings similar results.

  • The surveyor team member says "This land hasn't changed since Lewis and Clark first saw it sixty years ago."  Lewis and Clark didn't pass through the territory that would become Nebraska, they passed north of it.  But this is completely excusable if you assume the character was referring to the American West in a broad, regional sense.

  • The state lines on this map are wrong.  Compare the Idaho-Dakota-Utah Territory border below to see the discrepancy.  (This screencap also shows more electric lights, as well as more unlit ambiance gas lights.)

map source: Wikipedia

That's all I found in this episode.  I'll try to find more in episodes to come.  Thanks for reading!

Edited/Updated: 11/15/2011

If I've made any mistakes myself, please let me know.  Everyone makes mistakes, including television set designers, writers, and producers.  I know that this show is just a drama, and is meant to be entertaining, not educational or historically accurate.  Every historical drama has errors, I know this.  That doesn't make the exercise of finding/discussing them any less worthwhile.  That's like saying everyone spells words incorrectly from time to time, so we shouldn't bother proofreading anything, ever.  I did not write this out of anger or contempt; quite the opposite.  I wrote this for entertainment purposes as well, because I love westerns and I love history.  If I harbor any ill-will towards AMC at all, it is only because they cancelled Rubicon.  :)  All screenshots are © of AMC.


Anonymous said...

I noticed the hatless actors, too, especially Common's bare pate. I think having Johnson be a "copperhead" and then fight for the Union their ignorant way of making the character "layered" and two dimensional (and two layers is a lot on this show). He did say "I loved the war!" so maybe copperheadism aside, he was just a bad man who loved killin'. Bohannan's rise to management is meteoric, to say the least. One minute he's pledging to do just about anything and that he has no railroad experience; the next he's being introduced as the "walking boss" to a gang of workers. All because he owned five slaves before the war. Awesome resume! We had to get that racial conflict started quickly or else we wouldn't have a show. Somehow, even though Bohannan fought for a system that enslaved 3 1/2 million Blacks, he seems surprisingly liberal an concerned about Elam's feelings, at least temporarily. In later episodes, he's nasty and condescending to the Elam character in front of the other men.

Freeky Deeky said...

I think Cullen would still fight for the South even though not a slave-owner (anymore). Also, I don't see anyone wearing gloves. All that manual labor & horseback riding & no gloves?

Freeky Deeky said...

I think Cullen would still fight for the South even though not a slave-owner (anymore). Also, I don't see anyone wearing gloves. All that manual labor & horseback riding & no gloves? And the maps, look like they're showing what the states looked like AFTER the railroad was built?

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