We mentioned in this week’s comic blurb how the Pony Express has an iconic status in the image of the Old West that far outstrips its actual impact and time of existence. They’re not a made up thing, but that just potentially makes it more complicated if you want them in your Western tale but don’t want that tale to be set in the tiny window of 1860-1861 when they operated.
Writers have a ready made escape for this, which is that most people don’t know or don’t care. A Western set during the American Civil War (1861-1865) will show characters using guns that didn’t exist until the 1870’s. Or they might carry a revolver model invented in 1851, but load metal cartridges in a day and age they’d still be limited to cap-and-ball and tied paper.
Does that impact the audience’s enjoyment of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly? Not by much. A small percentage would have the know-how to realize something is amiss, and even then only a small percentage of those folks will be bothered with more than a shrug so long as they’re enjoying the rest of the movie.
The US Army didn’t formally adopt the Gatling Gun until after the war ended? Bah! Gatling Guns are so cool that even today action movies will use nearly any excuse to shove one in to the proceedings.
And that’s how a lot of fiction operates. Why is the Pony Express in your 1872 Western? Why’s that shell-shocked Confederate veteran fresh from Lee’s surrender carrying a Colt Peacemaker?
For much the same reason Rambo can fire an M-60 from the hip. Rule of Cool. The way Hyperdrive works in Star Wars doesn’t matter, what matters is desperately trying to fix it so you can jump to lightspeed before the Empire catches you. Colt Peacemakers and Winchester Repeating Rifles are all things expect to see from a tale of cowboys and gunslingers, so in they go. It’s so pervasive that even in this tale set in the 21st century some readers presumed Suzie and Frank were armed with those particular weapons. I think Dawn may have even accidentally drawn Suzie’s revolver like a Peacemaker once or twice even though I explained it was a more modern frame.
Now in our situation such a choice would be even less of an issue because it would be more a case of 21st Century ranchers simply being unlikely to use such weapons any more for day-to-day needs, rather than it being the impossibility of someone in 1872 owning a Springfield bolt-action rifle. But it was interesting to see people actually expressing disappointment on finding out that Frank wasn’t using a Winchester, like I’d personally shot a non-thirty-thirty hole right through the heart of their cowboy mythology. In the struggle between historical accuracy and iconic genre elements in fiction, historical accuracy often seems like a thankless task only a few hardcore nerds will appreciate, while the presence of the Pony Express will go unquestioned because it’s just hard-wired into audience expectations. People want that classic image of King Arthur and Lancelot wearing shining (and completely anachronistic) plate mail.
Is that bad? Well, considering one of the recent King Arthur movies that tried to present itself as more historically accurate to the time period wasn’t all that great a film, you can’t just blanket condemn inaccuracies. Artistic license happens, and the only thing that annoys me personally is when fiction claims to be historically accurate and/or “realistic” but isn’t, especially if it’s obvious that the creators actually really didn’t give a shit. It’s also better for me if a creator can graciously nod and acknowledge, “I know this particular style of stagecoach wasn’t around until several years later, but it’s cool looking and iconic so we rolled with it”, rather than just going “Huh?”, shrugging, and shooting you the finger while snorting another line of coke off a hooker’s ass.
Or you could cunningly concoct an alternative future setting that deviated from the world we know some murky time in the past decades, so that your only conflicts of accuracy may be logical rather than historical. But *ahem* more on that next week, I think.