AMC's 'Hell on Wheels' follows blood and vice on the march west


From the Great Pyramids to Hoover Dam, no massive, ambitious enterprise has ever come to fruition without a cost paid as much in blood and pain as in money -- and the First Transcontinental Railroad is no exception.

On Sunday, Nov. 6, AMC premieres "Hell on Wheels," a period drama set in the traveling den of sin and iniquity -- and churches -- that accompanied the westward march of the Union Pacific Railroad, starting in Nebraska in the years just after the Civil War (the series actually filmed in Alberta, Canada).

Anson Mount stars as former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, who's on a mission to exact revenge on the Union soldiers who murdered his wife.

Also starring are Colm Meaney as Thomas "Doc" Durant, inspired by a real character, a businessman and investor who plans to make his fortune from the railroad; rapper Common as recently freed slave Elam Ferguson, seeking to find a place in the world; Dominique McElligott as Lily Bell, the recent widow of a railroad surveyor; Ben Esler and Philip Burke as the young McGinnes brothers; and Eddie Spears as Native American Joseph Black Moon.

Conceived during the Civil War and financed with 30-year government bonds and extensive grants of government-owned land, the railroad construction began in 1863 in Sacramento with the Central Pacific Railroad of California. In 1865, after the war ended, the Union Pacific Railroad began building west from Omaha, Neb.

Series creators and brothers Tony and Joe Gayton did consider doing both stories in the series, but, says Joe Gayton, "People asked us if we were insane, if we were trying to ... service both of the stories in a one-hour pilot."

One of the goals of the Transcontinental Railroad was to refocus the attention of a nation divided into North and South by working to unite East and West."It worked in certain ways," says Mount. "Certainly the men working on it had been trying to kill each other a month or two months or three months before, and suddenly they're hammering railroad ties together.

"You've got every color of the rainbow working it, or at least, a lot of nationalities plus the freedmen. So in that sense, it's basically ... the 19th-century version of 'We're going to put a man on the moon,' and everybody said, 'OK, let's go for it.' ".

At the same time the railroad was being built, telegraph cables were also being strung along the route so that newspapers across the nation could keep the public abreast of the progress.

"When the last nail got hammered," Mount says, "there were huge parties. It was like the millennium, all over the country."

There was also a staggering amount of graft."As Durant says in the pilot," says Mount, " 'There will be perfidy of epic proportions.' "

"Some things never change," says Meaney. "Actually, it was not so much the government doing this as the outside business forces using the government in very clever ways."

Along with the granted rights-of-way, Meaney says, "there were guys making sure that they bought enough land on either side of the tracks as well, because towns would develop there, and the land would become much more valuable than the land 40 miles from the tracks -- so it was all that sort of thing."Those shenanigans were going on as well."

For Common, his role as Elam gave him an opportunity to explore a sad chapter in African-American history from a fresh perspective.

"I learned that the relationship between blacks and whites," he says, "between every black person and every white person, isn't just the N-word; there were relationships, too, that existed.

"The great thing for me to be playing this character -- we've seen certain black characters from this time period -- but to have a character with this strength and this intelligence and leadership during this time, even being of mixed race, it's something to play."

For Mount, it was a chance to play a Western character who's not wholly good or bad.

"He's a righteous man," Mount says. "He's got a sense of right and wrong that's leading him in a certain direction, but he is, by definition, a serial killer. He is systematically hunting down a specific group of people and killing them one after another. That's pretty dark.

"It's a complicated case. It's interesting, with AMC, there's always this complex man out at the front of the show. I don't think there is a good guy. Everybody in this show is a hero, for a different reason."

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World