"Hell on Wheels," Wikipedia tells us, "was the itinerant collection of flimsily assembled gambling houses, dance halls, saloons, and brothels that followed the army of Union Pacific railroad workers westward as they constructed the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1860s North America. The huge numbers of wage-earning young men working in what was a remote wilderness, far from the constraints of home, provided a lucrative opportunity for business. As the end of the line continually moved westward, Hell on Wheels followed along, reconstructing itself on the outskirts of each town that became, in turn, the center of activity for the Union Pacific's construction work." The term seems first to have been coined by Springfield, Massachusetts Republican newspaper editor Samuel Bowles.
TA Kent did a roaring trade
The whole notion contained many elements of the classic Western. Railroads, saloons, conflict with Indians, itinerant Westerners, guns. It was ideal subject matter for our beloved genre. John Ford showed Hell on Wheels in The Iron Horse, back in 1924, though it was a very sanitized version compared with the one the Canadian/American TV series gave us between 2011 and 2016.
Moving day for Hell on Wheels, according to John Ford
The series was created and produced by Joe and Tony Gayton, though they seem to have been sidelined somewhat later on, and developed by Endemol USA, and it was produced by Entertainment One and Nomadic Pictures.
The show is very good. It’s not Deadwood or anything, it’s not that good, but it’s more than competently handled, it’s well acted (in the case of Colm Meaney very well) and the look of it is excellent.
Many of these shows like to focus in on a small group of characters. It makes the huge sweep of the story manageable and provides human interest. Season 1 (I’ll update this review as I see the later seasons) does that. It centers on ruthless railroad baron (all good railroad Westerns had to have one) Doc Durant (Meaney), a real character - pretty well the only one on the show - who really did single-mindedly drive the railroad across the country with scant regard for the niceties, and an ex-Confederate soldier determined to revenge himself on the murderers of his wife, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount).
Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant (born 1820, died 1885) studied medicine at Albany Medical College where, in 1840, he graduated cum laude and briefly served as assistant professor of surgery. He then became a director of his uncle's grain exporting company in New York City, and it was there that he became convinced of the need for an extensive railroad network. He and his new partner Henry Farnam created a contracting company, Farnam and Durant, and in 1853 they were given the commission of raising capital and managing construction for the newly chartered Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (M&M). They hired an attorney, a certain Abraham Lincoln, when boat operators sued the company after a boat hit a bridge. This relationship would later come in quite handy. In 1862 President Lincoln selected Durant's new company, the Union Pacific, and its operation center in Council Bluffs, Iowa as the starting point of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Colm Meaney as Durant
Durant soon gained a reputation for ruthlessness. He is said to have made a fortune smuggling contraband cotton from the Confederate states during the war. It was said of him that "Like Samson he would not hesitate to pull down the temple even if it meant burying himself along with his enemies." This is quoted in the show. And he was supremely good at raising money and securing favorable national legislation. He had no qualms about what today would be called insider trading, and he very profitably talked up the stock of the M&M by saying the Union Pacific would link to it but secretly bought shares in a competing line and then announced that the UPR would link to that. Durant covered himself by having various politicians, including future President James Garfield, as limited stockholders. Calling him a shrewd operator doesn’t really cover it.
Since the government was paying $16,000 a mile, Durant had his engineers lay track in huge looping oxbows, even on the plain where a straight line would have been simpler, in order to lay more miles of track. This too is mentioned in the script of the show.
Durant at the railroad camp
He triumphed. His railroad joined up with the Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869. Durant nearly didn’t get there. Over 400 laid-off unpaid graders and tie cutters chained his railcar to a siding in Piedmont, Wyoming until he wired money to pay them.
Durant was one of the richest and most famous men in America.
It didn’t end too well for him, though. Like many others, he lost a great deal of his wealth in the Panic of 1873. He spent the last twelve years of his life fighting lawsuits from disgruntled partners and investors, and died in 1885 aged 65.
Durant became the model for ‘the’ railroad baron in Westerns. One thinks immediately of Sergio Leone’s character Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West. John Marston portrayed Durant in the Paramount film Union Pacific (1939) and Forrest Fyre portrayed him in the mini-series, Into the West (2005). Irishman Colm Meaney makes a splendid Durant in Hell on Wheels. When I was young the word meaney was used to describe any malicious or nasty person, and Colm lives up excellently to his name. Curiously, though, thanks to the actor and script, you can’t help liking him in a way, and wanting him to succeed.
As for the fictional Bohannon, Anson Mount’s mother was a pro golfer and his dad was an editor of Playboy, so that was an interesting start in life. Apparently his great-great-great grandfather was a Confederate cavalry colonel in the Civil War. He said, “I love the long-form format of television. I love being able to develop a character, over a long period of time.” I get that. He also said, “I love getting paid to ride a horse.” Yup. He’s OK as the revenge-driven man-of-few-words tough guy.
The transcontinental railroad came to symbolize the bringing of civilization. It brought trade, settlers, goods and amenities, yet at the same time, paradoxically, it brought the flotsam and jetsam of (white) human life to the plains – brothels, alcoholism, murder (the sign welcoming newcomers to Hell on Wheels announces the population as “one less every day”) and every kind of vice. There’s a telling bit when the Cheyenne ride in to parley and are shocked and appalled at the squalor and filth and debasement that they see.
One less every day
The crew was cursed/blessed with heavy and prolonged rain during the shooting, the result being a sea of authentic mud. The making-of extras on the DVD are interesting and one comes to realize the huge number of people, and their skills, involved in the production of such a show. In the old days trains were two-a-penny and even the humblest second-feature Western would feature one (usually being robbed). Denver & Rio Grande even crashed two head-on. But Western trains are rare beasts these days and so the production teams made one – out of wood and Styrofoam, painted to look like weathered steel. Special effects provided the smoke and steam. Some vehicle pushed it and was then digitally edited out afterwards. Amazing. And it looks really authentic! They were able to rent 15,000 acres of pristine land in Alberta belonging to a Native American people, lay track and create a tent city there.
As is often the case these days, there was a series of guest directors, 26 in all.
Kevin Kiner was in charge of the music and he went down the present-day rather than the (then) contemporary route, with some jangly folky stuff and the occasional dark ballad.
The 45-minute pilot opens in DC just after the death of Lincoln. A soldier who had been with Sherman in his scorched-earth campaign confesses in church and the ‘priest’ gives him a strange kind of absolution – he shoots the man dead. This is the start of Bohannon’s vengeance quest.
This quest brings him to the railroad camp at Council Bluffs, Iowa. On the way he meets two likely Irish lads, Mickey (Phil Burke) and Sean (Ben Esler) McGinnes, who are on their way to ‘make their fortune’.
Mickey and Sean (or it may be Sean and Mickey)
They set up a tent with a magic lantern show, but are soon shaken down for protection money by the so-called head of security, the sinister Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), an ex POW in Andersonville.
Bohannon signs on with a one-handed ex-Union soldier foreman, Johnson (Ted Levine), who, it will turn out, knows more than a little of how Bohannon’s wife came to perish. As an ex-slave owner, Bohannon is put in charge of the Negro workforce, the leading light among whom is Elam Ferguson, played by the rapper/actor Common.
Common is on the Negro workforce
Difficult to like
He has a ‘tame’ Indian as helper, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), a Cheyenne converted to Christianity. And we also meet the railroad surveyor, Robert Bell (Robert Moloney) who is ably assisted by his lovely English wife Lily (Dominique McElligott).
Lily takes over as surveyor
Unfortunately, the Cheyenne are not taking kindly to the iron horse and under Pawnee Killer who is Joseph’s brother but not at all tame (Gerald Auger) dog soldiers attack the surveying party and kill Robert with an arrow. Lily is frightfully brave and manages to kill an Indian and then escape – with the precious charts which map out the only feasible route the railroad can take.
Joseph Black Moon between his father Many Horses and brother Pawnee Killer
At the end of the episode, Bohannon learns from foreman Johnson who actually killed his wife but before he can get details Johnson succumbs, as one is prone to do when one’s throat is cut…
Thus the plot is set up for the rest of season 1.
Episode 2 bears the title Immoral Mathematics, and these are the calculations the Swede, a former accountant, makes when estimating the value of a course of action. He has a sawn-off shotgun named Beauty which backs up his calculus. And by the way, the firearms, of which there are many in the show (though not yet, tragically, a derringer) all seem authentic to the time.
Difficult to argue with
The Swede arrests and imprisons Bohannon for the murder of Johnson (though we viewers have seen that it was not in fact he that did the deed). As the Swede has just hanged a horse thief, who still resides dangling from a telegraph pole, the omens do not look good for Bohannon. But he escapes and is sheltered by the clergyman in his tent church.
In Episode 3, A New Birth of Freedom, we follow the perils of Lily, as she (just) evades the Indians hunting her, while clinging on to her precious maps. She performs grisly prairie surgery on herself. Durant sends the Swede and some men out to find her. He doesn’t really care about her welfare but he needs those maps back. But the posse is ineffective. Joseph, then Bohannon, the latter showing himself to be extremely proficient in a fight, will finally come to her rescue, Bohannon also adding a touch of open-air operating as he gets an arrowhead out of her shoulder. Ow.
Episode 4, Jamais je t’oublierai, gets its title from a plaintive French song sung by Durant’s French butler Henri (Andrew Moodie) as the tycoon starts to woo the fair Lily. We also get to know some of the whores. Bohannon gets hired by Durant (who knows a tough guy when he sees one) as replacement foreman. The new foreman hears that the sergeant who killed his wife is out at a nearby logging camp.
Robin McLeavy is Eva
The title of Episode 5, Bread and Circuses, refers to the prize fight that Durant sets up between Bohannon and the head Negro Ferguson to distract the men from the awkward fact that he is having credit difficulties and there is, again, no cash to pay them. It’s a bloody and bruising battering they get (and bet on) with skullduggery involved too, so far from a fair fight.
The Marquess of Queensberry would not have approved
We also meet our old pal Wes Studi, always one of the strongest Native American actors, as Chief Many Horses of the Cheyenne and the father of Joseph Black Moon and Pawnee Killer. It is traditional in Westerns to have a statesmanlike chief with a firebrand son and one who counsels treating with the white eyes, and Hell on Wheels is no exception. The Reverend Mr. Cole’s daughter Ruth arrives and it transpires that she has been neglected and mistreated by her clerical father, who wants little or nothing to do with her. There is also a viciously racist worker, Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw), who seems to have a particular grudge against Ferguson.
Pride, Pomp and Circumstance, Episode 6, sees the arrival of a senator (James D Hopkin) who has come to dictate to the savages how they must accept the railroad and move to a reservation. Chief Many Horses is less than convinced. Joseph and Ruth seem to be attracted to each other. Not sure how that will go down with either father. It appears that Durant has been siphoning off railroad company funds for his own profit, and the senator is on to it. Bohannon fires the obnoxious Toole. There’s a race between the locomotive and Pawnee Killer on a horse. Lily has some business with a hat. She decides to disinter the maps from their resting place and give them to Durant – for a price. Toole whips up the mob.
Doc made the headlines
Episode 7, Revelations, gives us Bohannon beginning to bond with Ferguson; he gives the Negro a shooting lesson. We see Ferguson as a young boy secretly, seditiously but successfully reading. Back in the present, Toole’s men look set to lynch Ferguson, but Bohannon won’t allow that. There’s a good scene in which Lily, temporarily back East, meets the family of her late husband, and these women resemble black widow spiders, but Lily gives them short shrift. The crisis comes between Ferguson and Toole, with gunfire. Durant manages to screw the senator financially with a clever ploy, and then propositions the returned Lily.
Derailed, Episode 8, gives us a train crash, expertly and convincingly staged (the making-of extras on the DVD tell us how). The unsympathetic Mr. Cole undergoes a crisis. The Irish brothers are not exactly making their fortune – though Sean, the canny one, did shrewdly bet on the right side in the prizefight. They go to Chicago and return. There is some disagreement on the name of the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg. There’s a posse with divided loyalties, a soldier shoots an Indian kid and there’s an attack.
Episode 9 is called Timshel, and right away Joseph shows his brother Pawnee Killer where his loyalties lie. Ferguson takes a scalp. The Swede beats a whore for not paying protection money. Lily herself starts surveying – that was the price she demanded for the maps. Ferguson takes a scalp. Toole, whom we thought dead, returns, penitent. There seems to be a plot cooking to kill the Swede. The senator uses his contacts in Illinois to locate the missing sergeant that Bohannon is seeking (he missed him at that logging camp. The railroad makes the 40-mile mark, so now the $16,000 a mile government subsidy kicks in. Is Lily attracted more to Bohannon than to Durant? There’s a kiss – and a beheading.
In the last instalment of Season 1, Episode 10, God of Chaos, there’s a flashback to Bohannon in the war and we see the fate of his wife. The Swede, who seems increasingly obsessed, meets the mysterious ex-sergeant at Council Bluffs and then returns to the camp with him. There’s a dance, and the reformed Toole is very polite. Ruth and Joseph take a turn on the dance floor. Bohannon and the sergeant come to blows, finally, and the encounter is fatal for one of them – but the ex-soldier professes his innocence. Perhaps he didn’t kill Mrs. Bohannon after all? Guilty or not, the US marshals are now after our hero, who is obliged to go on the run.
To be continued…