Image courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_on_Wheels_(TV_series)
While westerns have seen a slight resurgence over the past few years, nothing encapsulates the spirit of the genre quite as well as Joe and Tony Gayton’s ‘Hell on Wheels’. Beginning in 1865, shortly after the end of the American civil war and Lincoln’s assassination, and with a loose basis on real-life events, ‘Hell on Wheels’ largely focuses on the construction of the first transcontinental railway.
Former plantation owner and confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) finds employment at the Union Pacific railroad as a means to track down the men who murdered his wife and child during the war. Led by shrewd businessman Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), Bohannon is put in charge of an all-black ‘cut crew’, whose responsibility is to level the terrain for the laying of track.
He is soon swept up in the grandeur of the endeavour, becoming friends with a worker, Elam (Common), Irish brothers Micky (Phil Burke) and Sean (Ben Esler), and outcast prostitute Eva (Robin Mcleavy), who’s marked from her time living with Native Americans. While also drawing the favourable intentions from recent widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), Bohannon attracts a more sinister interest from Norwegian Tor Gunderson (Christopher Heyerdahl), otherwise known as ‘the Swede’.
Battling Durant’s corrupt drive to complete the “mad and noble quest” of the railroad, alongside his own need for revenge, Bohannon takes on all problems one would expect at a rolling camp-site so rife with sordidness it’s dubbed ‘Hell on Wheels’.
While the Wild West setting is entertaining in its own right, the show raises many divisive issues of the time: the animosity between former union and confederate soldiers; racial tensions between white, black, Native American, Irish and Chinese populations; the rise of Mormonism; and growing political corruption. Not to mention the usual gun-toting, horse-riding, guys in ten gallon hats who like whiskey, punching people and struggle with commitment (which is unsurprising in Bohannon’s case).
With various historical aspects either imagined or embellished, ‘Hell on Wheels’ can be forgiven for any inaccuracies as certainly wasn’t created as a documentary. Violently compelling, this well-made and often beautifully shot series definitely earns its place as a TV favourite.