Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Legend Creates Reality

Television shows are usually a very poor depiction of reality, especially shows that are supposed to be based on actual events.  You could run a divining rod over most of these shows and it would never find a fact to twitch over.  This is strange, since history is fascinating.  Every war, every scandal, every love affair that has ever occurred is history.  This probably flies in the face of your memories of history class, but trust me--history isn't boring.  Historians are boring.

One method of enlivening history is simply to lie and when it comes to depicting the Wild West, having a good imagination is a lot easier than research.  For a few writers, the truth is pretty much an unwelcome stranger.

Ned Buntline was one such writer.  Ned wrote the dime novels that distorted the West, making up wild tales with only the briefest accidental brush with reality.  His books include The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main and Buffalo Bill and His Adventures In the West.  While both are great reads--neither is even remotely true. 

Interestingly, the story of Ned Buntline is about as fascinating as his yarns.  Buntline was one of several pen names used by Edward Zane Judson, whose real life was far more colorful than most of his novels.  Buntline/Judson went to sea as a midshipman in the age of sail, served in two wars, and fought a duel for which he was tried for murder.  His acquittal angered a local mob, who lynched him--but his friends managed to cut him down and save his life.  Curiously, today he is probably best remembered for supposedly inventing the Colt Buntline--a gun the author neither saw nor even heard of during  his lifetime.

Stuart N. Lake was another writer who never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  Lake wrote the scripts for John Ford's My Darling Clementine and Winchester '73, but it was his 1931 biography of Wyatt Earp that made him, and the relatively obscure lawman famous.  In Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, Lake created the prototype of the heroic western lawman.

While the book is a wild exaggeration of the true life of Earp, one clever invention in it was to  take on a life of its own.  In the book, Lake wrote that Ned Buntline placed an order with Colt Firearms for five custom Peacemaker revolvers, each with a 12-inch barrel and a detachable shoulder stock.  Buntline then supposedly gave the revolvers to the five most colorful lawmen of the time: Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Neal Brown.  Lake asks us to believe that Buntline's gifts are in gratitude because these  Dodge City peace officers had made the west "colorful" enough to give him a living as a writer.

According to Lake, most of the men cut the barrel extensions off their revolvers to make them easier to carry, but Wyatt Earp kept his a foot long.  Then, when he wasn't shooting bad guys with the gun, he was knocking them senseless--using the pistol as a club.  Lake also tells us that Earp could draw his revolver--with a barrel that went down to his knee--still faster than any desperado could slap leather with a normal-sized gun.

Unfortunately, the story is simply not true.  Buntline never ordered any such gun, and while Colt advertised that it would make a barrel at any length--at a dollar an inch surcharge--it made no pistols in the 19th century with 12-inch barrels.  Nor were those five lawmen all in Dodge at the same time, and Buntline was back east at the time, and,... well, you get the idea.   While it is a great story, and many people have tried to prove it true, there is no proof that Earp ever owned such a gun. 

Through the efforts of such men as Buntline, Lake, and Zane Grey, the Western took off as a standard in the movies, and eventually, on television.  From 1955-1961, Hugh O'Brian played Wyatt Earp weekly in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.  The popular television show hired none other than Stuart Lake as the technical advisor.  Naturally, shortly into the first season (in a script written by Lake) Ned Buntline presented Wyatt Earp with a Buntline Special.  O'Brian/Earp carried the long clumsy revolver for the next six years.

And suddenly, the gun really did exist!  Demand for the gun convinced Colt Firearms to begin production of a .45 caliber Peacemaker with a 12-inch barrel engraved with the legend: Buntline Special.  They have been periodically manufactured ever since.  Not to be outdone, there was even a toy version made for children.  Today, no fewer than four firearms companies make working "reproductions."

At the end of one of one of my favorite movies, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a beloved, aging politician, played by Jimmy Stewart, has just confessed that the true hero of a famous gunfight was actually the character played by John Wayne.  This confession would  completely change the popular history of the event.  The newspaper editor takes the notes from the confession and destroys them.

"This is the West, Sir," he says.  "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

And sometimes, after a century and a half, the legends actually become reality.

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