As an historian, I was extremely leery of AMC's Hell on Wheels. Convinced Anson Mount and hip-hop-artist-turned-actor Common could deliver on their performances, the verdict was out on the historical accuracy of the show. Could the network deliver on a drama that would introduce the hellish nature of Reconstruction-era life for African Americans, immigrants and women, to pop culture viewers?
Hell on Wheels has been labeled a contemporary Western and depicts the exploits of the traveling town of brothel, church, and bath tents that follow the path of railroad expansion, known as Hell on Wheels. A hodgepodge of disgraced former Confederate soldiers, immigrants, prostitutes and reformers make up the denizens of Hell on Wheels. Though former slave master and Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, [actor Anson Mount], leads the storyline, his exploits as the railroad's "straw boss" to a group of formerly enslaved black men, pale in comparison to the larger storyline of American social reconstruction.
To its credit, AMC has kept a great majority of the raw history intact. The first transcontinental railroad in the United States was built in the 1860s, linking the well-developed railway network of the Eastern coast with rapidly growing California. The main line was officially completed on May 10, 1869 and the transcontinental railroad replaced the slower and more dangerous wagon trains, Pony Express and stagecoach lines that brought whites and other settlers into dangerous Native American tribal territories.
True to form, the first Hell on Wheels town was erected in Omaha, Neb. in 1865 and shifted several miles west, moving along with the leading edge of the railroad every month or so, reassembling their flimsy canvas tents in a single day's time, until it reached Julesburg, Colo., two years later. There, the town formerly comprised of 40 men and one woman, transformed instantly into a town of more than 4,000. The workers, however, were largely immigrant Irish and Chinese, though a few band of African Americans joined the ranks. Chinese are largely missing from AMC's narrative though.
The beauty of Hell on Wheels is a believable storyline, superb acting, and a genuine desire by audiences to understand more fully the role women, immigrants and blacks played in the development of America. Rest assured: this history lesson is supercharged, full of action, adventure, drama, and grit.
The show is worth a look for a glimpse of Common [aka Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.], swinging that pickaxe. His body of acting credits includes Just Wright and American Gangster, but this role as the mixed-race former slave, demonstrates the depth of his acting abilities. Common is tense and intense. Audiences watch the character Elam Ferguson negotiate black masculinity in his every interaction, understanding that either white hostility or whim could cost him life or limb.
"I did a heavy-duty amount of research into our history and the history of African people once we arrived on the shores of America. But I must say some of it is just innately in my soul. I am really connected to this struggle, beyond even any research. ... It was definitely more emotional because of what occurred during those times and how some of our people were treated," Common said.
The Chicago-native said he did more than go through the motions in scenes that required him to labor in the sun on a railroad line.
"Oh yeah, when you're out there in the sun, swinging that pickaxe, you're going to sweat. When it's raining and it's muddy, it's going to be harder to walk through the mud. Those natural elements are there. We're doing the labor and, man, some of the work that people did back then was tough," Common said.
"Besides being perfect for the role, where so many actors would get caught up in playing the toughness and the austerity of the character, the sort of ideal downtrodden yet courageous strength of the character, which is there, Common plays it with such depth and complexity," Mount said. "There are times where you can see in him what it must have been like as a child, for his character. It's just an incredible performance."
Check local carrier subscriptions for more opportunities to view Hell on Wheels through streaming or On Demand.