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AMC’s Hell on Wheels has, at last, given viewers a taste of gunplay. The trouble with modern day westerns like this latest western show about train tracks being laid across the country at a snail’s pace so that the Union Pacific can stretch from coast to coast, is that the makers of the program have forgotten, if they ever knew, what makes a western good. This is not to say that the program is bad, in some ways they have tried hard to keep from relying on previous Hollywood stereotypes such as the Native American two dimensional characters used in most westerns back in the day.
Anson Mount, who plays the once revenge driven Cullen Bohannan and has stepped into the position of producer on Hell on Wheels in 2014, does a good job of looking like the modern version of western hero. Thus far there has not been much in the way of gunfights in the show. Considering just how poor the marksmanship was in the latest episode, Two Trains, this has most likely been for the best. Granted the two sides were both armed with carbines which really are only slightly better than a handgun so their lack of success was understandable to a degree.
However, back in the time of history when the railroad was advancing across the plains of the west, men had not only been fighting in the Civil War and using weapons on a daily basis over a protracted time period, but it had not been that long since the “Indian” wars and before that men had to hunt to eat. Anyone with shooting skills that bad would have starved or been scalped by any number of raiding parties.
On the plus side, Hell on Wheels has finally given western fans a bit of gunplay at last. The show even rolled out a gatling gun which, to give them credit for accuracy, fired at a more realistic rate than usually shown on western films. Sadly, this was the only part of the show that impressed. It is an interesting concept that politics played such a huge part in the moving of civilization across the American West, but it is doubtful whether it was quite so prevalent. That time in history featured a lot of “crooked” sheriffs who had enough side money coming in to supplement their paltry income as the town “keeper of the peace.”
Historical accuracy and firearm proficiency aside, the show slowed down when Mount’s character stopped seeking revenge against the Union soldiers who killed his wife and child. The plot shifted to Bohannan becoming enamoured with the railroad moving to the west coast and with his new wife. The show may have left behind old western two dimensional characters, like the town drunk, and the good guys may not necessarily be the white hat wearing heroes of old but one has to give them credit for trying.
While this week’s episode of Hell on Wheels has given the audience an almost satisfying bit of gunplay at long last, the tendency to give the players in this western drama too much in the way of modern motives and psychological mindsets still disappoints overall. Even Colm Meaney’s brilliant baddie at the start of the series has been watered down as each season progresses. Still, the show is better than past efforts, the foul-mouthed Deadwood for instance, but the program misses the mark on just what people were really like back then. Of course a good old fashioned “draw, tinhorn,” shoot out would go a long way to helping the series gloss over the historical inaccuracy. One can only hope for more showdowns at noon and less psychological dilemmas.
By Michael Smith