The Western is the groundwork for much of American cinema and storytelling. Westerns give us homegrown stories of good and evil, tales of love, vengeance, individualism, loss, hatred, fear and greed. All of these themes are thrust together to create a completely riveting world that is meant to resemble our very own America the Great when she and her people were lost and broken in a post Civil War environment.
It’s the world AMC’s brilliant “Hell on Wheels” delivers.
Today’s films give us heroes who look like they’re barely out of high school and still more worried about their first kiss than the state of the world around them. Westerns offer us everyman protagonists whether it was the preacher in “Pale Rider” or a more modern protagonist in films with Western ideals like “Die Hard.”
If you are anything like me then you long for these films and these sensibilities. The Western genre is thought to be mostly dead today with an occasional “3:10 to Yuma” or “Appaloosa” to convince us otherwise. “Hell on Wheels” has flown under the radar, and it’s time to give this puppy a chance now that it’s entering its second season. It’s a perfect show for Western lovers and conservatives alike. It hits all the beats a good Western needs to hit.
Every great Western has a distinctive protagonist. I refrain from using the word “hero” because the films of men like Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood understood the rough nature of the West and most of the men that inhabited its endless plains. These protagonists were quiet and scarred and consumed by hate but always willing to toe the line of morality.
Then there were the hulking heroes portrayed by John Wayne who always commanded the room because they shot straight and said what needed to be said.
“Hell on Wheels” gives us something of the former.
Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) is a man consumed by war and hate. He is quickly tracking down the men responsible for the deaths of his wife and son during the war when the show opens. He is brought to a place called Hell on Wheels where Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) is building a railroad to unify America and exemplify his greatness. Bohannan eventually finds work as the foreman of the railroad and keeps his motivations mostly quiet.
Little known Mount portrays Bohannan with a genuine Southern twang and a quiet roughness perhaps last seen in Eastwood’s great “Unforgiven.” He’s convincing in every seen as he brings across a complicated hero searching for his post-War identity.
A truly great Western is also recognized as such because it brings across a complex story of morality. The characters are not easily defined as “good” or “bad.” They are simply people. Some are better than others. “Hell on Wheels” excels in this department. There is not a single character on “Hell on Wheels” who cannot be hated, loved, rooted for, rooted against or all at once. The fact that the show brings this across so well is a testament to its writing headed by Joe and Tony Gayton.
Westerns deal with the idea of manhood, the notion that a man must do something simply because it is written in his fiber to do so no matter how evil he really is. This is how Westerns identify men. They may be as bad and clumsy and drunk as the rest of the worthless men sitting in saloons but when push comes to shove their pistol will be pointed in the direction of those who prey on the weak.
“Hell on Wheels” deals with almost every aspect of manhood. Bohannan is a man trying to identify himself after losing his family and the War ending. The only thing he has left is his morals and he attempts to draw a line and never cross it. Elam (Common), a newly freed slave, is also trying to define his own manhood as his more peaceful side fights with his growing violent nature. Even Thomas Durant, the show’s villain, is an examination of manhood in the vein of success. He wants to have it all. But he can’t seem to do it alone nor without cheating or cutting corners when he needs to.
And then there’s the women of “Hell on Wheels.” A good Western will always give us good women. A strong variety that is; women who scowl, women who fight, women who look longingly at our protagonist, women who yell and scream and blush. “Hell on Wheels” presents a variety of females for our viewing pleasure. There is a prostitute who is an ex-Indian captive who falls for Elam and there is the reverend’s daughter who begins to blossom in both the right and wrong ways due to her new surroundings.
Ms. Bell (Dominique McElligott) is the fair-haired maiden of the West. She is sometimes as scheming as the men on the show as she attempts to survive her husband’s legacy with the railroad. The women are just as varied and rich in texture as the men on this show, and I’m more than OK with that.
The Western has also got to have faith, recognizing the time period it portrays as one very much in service of God. “Hell on Wheels” gives us men of faith, men losing faith, men fighting it, arguing about it. It’s downright poetic … in a muddy, bloody, violent sort of guns a- blazin’ sort of way.
And, last but certainly not least, a good Western needs shootouts. We need to see gun smoke, men shooting straight, missing and reloading. We need to see the cold steel of revolvers and Winchesters in the hands of men. “Hell on Wheels” has got it all. The first season took awhile to mature, but it finally felt like a true Western when Elam and Bohannan took up arms together to do what gunfighters do best.
The show genuinely presents its excessive violence as well. We may get many scenes of violence fed to us in different ways but it always feels genuine and never phony. When someone is shot, they bleed. When a hero shoots, he doesn’t always shoot straight … or the right person. This genuineness added to the high quality of the costumes and production value make “Hell on Wheels” believable from the get go. The show starts, grabs your throat and doesn’t let go until the credits.
Conservatives and Big Hollywood readers may be running for the hills when they first hear the premise for the show. It sounds like a show trying to make big points about capitalist America and the villain is just some stereotypical capitalist trying to run the people amuck for his own profit. Not true. “Hell on Wheels” stays far away from the political preaching of most shows. It has no interest in the grander points of a capitalist America. It’s more interested in the lost souls of its story and these characters could care less about trying to make bigger political points.
Everyone has their bad qualities in “Hell on Wheels.” The show’s “villain” is hardly a typical capitalist. We see him scheming for tax dollars as he finesses the newly unified and corrupt government. In fact, the only sympathetic moments the character has are when he begins to look like an ambitious capitalist while giving his rousing speeches. These moments are short lived. He is there as a representation of the corruption of government and its abuse on people through backroom deals that undermine both our hearts and wallets.
“Hell on Wheels” is the answer for any person missing the Duke putting pilgrims in their place or Eastwood chomping on an old cigar. It’s a show that has little time for political preaching and phony showboat scenes. It gives us a reality soaked in violence, hatred, beauty; a reality inhabited by characters that are broken and trying to find their identities in a newly unified America. These characters inhabit a very different America: one broken by war, debt, racism and pure hatred. And I love every dirty second of it. The Western breathes, my friends, and it’s all thanks to the bloody heart that is AMC’s “Hell on Wheels.”
The show’s season two premiere airs at 9 p.m. EST tonight on AMC. “Hell on Wheel’s” first season can be seen via Netflix streaming.