Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“This congregation of scum and wickedness”

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on November 6, 2011

On Friday we had a talk over at Coates’ place about the new series making its debut tonight on AMC, Hell on Wheels. TNC flags a review that cuts to the core of the plot:

The hero is Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount with a grizzled animality and gaunt humanity that help the character to shoulder the burden of history. Bohannon fought for Confederacy. He was a slave owner, but he freed his slaves before the Civil War began, guided by the influence of his wife: “She convinced me of the evils of slavery.” She also did needlepoint, as we see in a dewy-eyed flashback to the days before Union soldiers raped and killed her.

Cliché much? Confederate revenge stories are getting really, really old.  Any gravitas they had as a serious plot device surely died along with Quentin Turnbull.

I can imagine the pitch meeting with AMC executives right now — “OK, see, it’s, uh, like Gladiator meets Deadwood. Get it?”

Clearly the producers of this miniseries are trying to bottle the lightning of HBO’s Deadwood. I never followed that series, but (historical license aside) it was highly regarded as a drama, with complex characters and writing that turned traditional Western tropes upside down. It doesn’t sound like Hell on Wheels is even attempting to stake out new territory in the same way. Patterson’s review continues:

The players in this drama are figures in a panoramic diorama. In its world of mud and sepia, feral whores face down lank preachers, Irish immigrant brothers seek their fortunes, Scandinavian-born enforcers looms as creepily as The Seventh Seal‘s Grim Reaper, and noble savages keep on keeping on. Second billing goes to Common, who plays Elam Ferguson, a former slave working for Union Pacific. The actor does a lot of good simmering and dutiful glowering, and his character’s relationship with Bohannon is the richest one on screen. The performance is just good enough to distract you from the fact that Ferguson less resembles an individual than an archetype addressing a few centuries’ worth of racial grievances.

None of Hell on Wheels‘ juicy eruptions of pulp or sporadic glimpses of soul impedes the myth-belching progress of a story about the little engine of empire that could. The shots are heavily styled in a way that is variously enrapturing and distancing, taking cues from landscape paintings, Mathew Brady photographs, and revisionist Westerns—all to the end of toying with the old myths of the New World. But you can hardly see the world for the myths, and the show seems bent on encouraging a sophisticated audience to set its intelligence aside in a sophisticated way.

Doesn’t sound like Hell on Wheels is going to challenge anyone’s thinking about the past in the way that Deadwood did, or The Wire or Breaking Bad even Mad Men do in their more modern settings. That’s a shame because, you know — locomotives! 😉

As a side note, there was a query about the term “Hell on Wheels,” and whether it was an anachronism for the series. It’s certainly not, as it was a contemporary term for the transient settlements of saloon keepers, gambling dens and other distractions of the flesh that followed the rail head snaking west across the plains. The term, in fact, may have been popularized in part by Samuel Bowles’ 1869 book, Our New West, which gave as vivid a description of these places as any ever committed to paper:

As the Railroad marched thus rapidly across the broad Continent of plain and mountain, there was improvised a rough and temporary town at its every public stopping-place. As this was changed every thirty or forty days, these settlements were of the most perishable materials, — canvas tents, plain board shanties, and turf-hovels,—pulled down and sent forward for a new career, or deserted as worthless, at every grand movement of the Railroad company. Only a small proportion of their populations had aught to do with the road, or any legitimate occupation. Most were the hangers-on around the disbursements of such a gigantic work, catching the drippings from the feast in any and every form that it was possible to reach them. Restaurant and saloon keepers, gamblers, desperadoes of every grade, the vilest of men and of women made up this “Hell on Wheels,” as it was most aptly termed.

When we were on the line, this congregation of scum and wickedness was within the Desert section, and was called Benton. One to two thousand men, and a dozen or two women were encamped on the alkali plain in tents and board shanties; not a tree, not a shrub, not a blade of grass was visible; the dust ankle deep as we walked through it, and so fine and volatile that the slightest breeze loaded the air with it, irritating every sense and poisoning half of them; a village of a few variety stores and shops, and many restaurants and grog-shops; by day disgusting, by night dangerous; almost everybody dirty, many filthy, and with the marks of lowest vice; averaging a murder a day; gambling and drinking, hurdy-gurdy dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce, the chief business and pastime of the hours, — this was Benton. Like its predecessors, it fairly festered in corruption, disorder and death, and would have rotted, even in this dry air, had it outlasted a brief sixty-day life. But in a few weeks its tents were struck, its shanties razed, and with their dwellers moved on fifty or a hundred miles farther to repeat their life for another brief day. Where these people came from originally; where they went to when the road was finished, and their occupation was over, were both puzzles too intricate for me. Hell would appear to have been raked to furnish them; and to it they must have naturally returned after graduating here, fitted for its highest seats and most diabolical service.

So if any of y’all watch tonight, I’d be happy to hear your impressions.

Update: Alyssa Rosenberg is equally disappointed in the first few episodes.

Image: Looking west from the 100th Meridian, October 1866. The man in the photo is likely either Samuel B. Reed, chief engineer of construction for the Union Pacific, or Thomas Chase Durant. Library of Congress.

6 Responses

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  1. Craig L said, on November 6, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Have you seen the Robert Altman film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller? It was made in 1971 and featured Warren Beatty and Julie Christie with a soundtrack written and performed by Leonard Cohen. Your description of the show’s concept would seem to require at least a bow to the brilliance of Altman’s direction.

  2. Will C said, on November 7, 2011 at 11:58 am

    As a Train Nerd and History Nerd who just finished up David Hayward Bain’s awesome “Empire Express,” the buzz I’m hearing on this gives me great trepidation (though AV Club gave it a “B+” for whatever that’s worth). The Transcontinental RR is surely a rich backdrop for a drama, and I really, really hope they can focus on that as the series goes on rather than Confederate apologia and hackneyed “see, we’re not so different after all” racial politics.

    Anyway, It’s on my DVR. Hopefully I’ll get around to it tonight.

    • Andy Hall said, on November 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm

      Thanks, Will. I’ll second the endorsement of Empire Express.

      I’d be happy to hear your thoughts after viewing. I missed it myself because something came up, but am looking forward to a rebroadcast.

  3. Woodrowfan said, on November 9, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    When I saw the title to this post, ““This congregation of scum and wickedness”” I thought for sure it was another post about the reaction of certain “southron” bloggers to your site and Kevin’s. 😎

  4. Lyle Smith said, on November 17, 2011 at 10:55 am

    I actually like the series so far despite the warn out plot. The people making it clearly follow their history because they are getting a lot of the small things right, which is really all you can ask for in a Hollywood production that is made for a modern American audience. An accurate and precise history lesson is not what people want to watch… not enough of them anyway.

    I also highly recommend Deadwood to you. It’s probably the best series HBO has ever done, in my opinion. It’s not historical at all really, but they get the time down visually really well… much like Hell on Wheels. The two shows are nothing like each other. Hell on Wheels doesn’t have the comedy or the dialogue that Deadwood has, but it is probably the show that is trying to be more historically accurate in its dialogue and facts of the two.

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