December 17, 2011

Anachronisms in Hell On Wheels, S1 Episode 2

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.  All screenshots are © of AMC.

These posts are not strictly a discussion of outright anachronisms in the show, but also discussion of the portrayal of historical events as a part of the overall story, and whether or not (I think) they are used effectively.  In other cases, I’ve only provided more information about historical events mentioned in the show.

For my post on the pilot, please click here.


The bulk of the storyline for this episode involves Bohannan being held in an empty train car.  After he escapes, he hops from tent to tent, and again not much is portrayed or said therein in the way of history.  Even though it didn’t give me much to write about, I enjoyed this because I felt as if references to historical events weren't getting in the way of the plot, which they seemed to do throughout the pilot.  The subplot of Lily Bell involved her travelling mostly by herself in the wilderness, and so there wasn’t much room for anachronisms there, either.

  • Andersonville.  While Bohannan is held in captivity of the train car, Thor Gunderson, aka The Swede, says to him, “Our supply train was captured, and I become Prisoner of War.”  Bohannon immediately assumes, “Andersonville?” “That’s right.”  This little exchange bugged me, not just because Bohannon automatically assumed Gunderson was at Andersonville, as if it were the only Confederate POW camp.  On another level, it bugged me because it seems that the purpose of writing that the Swede was in Andersonville Prison, as opposed to any another POW camp, would be because the audience is most likely to be familiar with the history of that specific camp.  This familiarity could then be used to avoid a quick history lesson that bogs down the dialog.  But the writers do it anyway, they go ahead and tell you plainly where Andersonville Prison was located (“way down in the great state of Georgia”), and while they’re at it, have the character rattle off some statistics to you (“30,000 prisoners, 14,000 dead”).  And oh yeah, the conditions were really gruesome ('I weighed like 5 pounds and some dude tried to snack on my arm.  Shit was crazy.')

  • Baltimore-Ohio Bridge over the Monocacy River.  Bohannan tells Durant that he blew up this bridge during the War.  This bridge was, in fact, destroyed by Confederate forces during the War.  Here is an excerpt from History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad by John F. Stover, published first in 1987 by Purdue University Press.  A limited preview of this work is available on Google Books.
"Early in September 1862, the gray-clad troops of Robert E. Lee again moved north across the Potomac River and the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio.  Again the Confederates were hard on the bridges of the B&O including the wooden trestle at Harpers Ferry and the iron bridge over the Monocacy River near Frederick.  Of the destruction of the Monocacy bridge, master of road John L. Wilson wrote in the 1862 Annual Report: 'September 8 [1862], The splendid iron suspension bridge at Monocacy blown up by the enemy.  This bridge consisted of three spans of 115 feet each.  The water station at Monocacy, including pump house and engine house, also burned,'..." (108)

  • Canola.  I've read that this show was filmed in Canada.  Isn't this rapeseed (or canola), a crop not grown in Canada until the 1970's?

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.

1 comment:

Cb said...

lazy screenwriter laying pipe by describing Andersonville doesn't bother me as much as mispronunciation of a civil war battle. Kinda like alling it the battle of Shill-O.

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