September 2, 2013

Protected: The New Westerns and AMC’s Hell on Wheels

by David McConeghy

Saturday, August 10th brings the Season 3 premiere of AMC’s original historical drama Hell on Wheels. To avoid spoiling the content for anyone who hasn’t found the time to enjoy the series, here is the premise:

Cullen Bohannan, a former soldier and slaveholder, follows the track of a band of Union soldiers, the killers of his wife. This brings him to the middle of one of the biggest projects in US history, the building of the transcontinental railroad. After the war years in the 1860s, this undertaking connected the prospering east with the still wild west.
I have to admit I am a sucker for historical dramas. I fell in love with HBO’s Romeand I’ve been equally enthralled with PBS’s Downton Abbey and Showtime’s The Tudors and The Borgias. Despite inevitable anachronisms and inaccuracies, I believe there’s an amazing service being done by these shows. They are soldiers on the front line of the battle for history’s relevance. They also, however self-servingly, make room for more academic roles in the creation and discussion of cultural material. As conduits for intense scrutiny–like the recent feature filmsLincoln or Django Unchained–they are something the academy desperately needs.

The American West has its own particular demons in this respect–partly because of how prolific the genre of western film and television has been. The 1950s and 1960s produced more Westerns than any other period in American film and television. As American historical products of the late Jim Crow era, not all of these have survived the test of time as cultural products worthy of continuous reinvestment. The 2010 remake of True Grit (1969), for instance, captures the spirit of the John Wayne original for a modern audience that would be unlikely to tolerate the older version’s pacing and production values. The differences between the two films are also an opportunity to imagine the (many) ways American media has changed its understanding and portrayal of the historical American West. Narrating the past inevitably reveals the present.

It’s in this respect that I direct readers to AMC’s Hell on Wheels. As history, it is certainly not perfect. Specialists would be concerned by its treatment of racial tensions among newly freed slaves, European and Asian immigrant laborers, and veterans of both sides of the Civil War. On the whole, however, I find it a revealing portrait of the Postbellum industrialization of the west. The tensions of the railroad camp–ethnic, social, religious–recall Susan Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp with its captivating portrait of Stockton, CA during the Gold Rush. Some of the great costs of winning the west are laid bare. This can mean, as it should, a sometimes graphic experience. (Be warned that this is something shared by the majority of the recent cable TV historical dramas.)

That’s the role of all great drama, right? Bring out the light and dark of the past for those in the present. By the end of season 1 (available streaming on Netflix),Hell on Wheels has emphasized the confrontation of freedom and confinement, tradition and innovation, morality and depravity. The revenge narrative that structures the series gives ample opportunity to forge characters in the crucible of seemingly impersonal forces. The impurities that arise also reveal the ethos of the new westerns–more easily ready to wallow in the moral middle ground.

As a further instance of a growing body of new westerns worth watching, “Hell on Wheels” joins features like True Grit (2010). Rather than compile an exhaustive list of the last decade, I encourage you to look at the interestingly categorized list of western films on Wikipedia (that distinguishes among traditional, comedy, revisionist, and several other types of westerns). But on TV the star is surely has to be HBO’s Deadwood. It is consistently ranked as one of the best television series of the last decade. Its three seasons (2004-2006) brought life to the fledgling frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota. It was also among the first truly successful historical dramas–proof for cable TV channels that original programming was profitable. If Hell on Wheels can do the same for railroad camps on the Great Plains, then we should welcome its contribution.

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