Posts Tagged ‘Westerns’

Race on Wheels

November 15, 2011

The second episode of Hell on Wheels was more refined than the previous episode as it was able to explore each character in more depth. This is evidenced by the character known as “the Swede,” a large imposing figure who is head of security in the lawless West. The irony of “the Swede” is that he is of Norwegian decent. Even though he is a recipient of a racial misnomer, he still uses race as a factor when he tries to figure out who murdered Daniel Johnson. He speculates that the murder was committed by “one of the Nee-groes” and “the Swede” takes delight in the possibility that if an African American is guilty or is even presumed guilty, that he would be able to hang him. “The Swede” is an interesting character in that he is greatly affected by race while also using race and its prejudices in his own judgments.

Race is used as a compass to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains which has been an underlying precept in the Western genre. Hell on Wheels continues this tradition through the relationship between the Native Americans and the White men. In Hell on Wheels, some of the Native Americans are depicted as savages, and villains, who ruthlessly attack a settlement, killing everyone in sight. Furthermore, they are hunting for Lily Bell, who they warn will be defiled and murdered if caught. Standing in their way is Joseph Black Moon, an Indian, who now has adopted Jesus Christ and the white man’s culture. He cautions his brothers that if they harm a white woman, there will be repercussions, to which they reply that even though Moon appears different, he still remains an Indian and will be treated as such.

It appears that race will remain a large factor as Hell on Wheels continues. The relationship between the Whites and the “savage” Indians is a common theme in Westerns and it appears that Hell on Wheels is building up to a confrontation between the two cultures. Furthermore, the show continues to address the relationship and racial tensions between Whites and African Americans during the post-Civil War period. This is exemplified when Cullen, who is accused of Johnson’s murder, points out that he could report Elam, a recently freed African American, as the murderer and he would be believed without evidence because he is white and Elam is black.

Hell on Wheels: Pilot

November 8, 2011

Although this is humiliating, I am going to go out and say it: I almost had to shut my computer halfway through watching the Hell on Wheels pilot because it was difficult for me to sit through all of the gore and brutality. Clearly I have a low tolerance for violence, but the cinematic style of using intimate, close-up shots of bloody killings and altercations were too much for me. I am probably the only viewer of the Hell on Wheels pilot that felt this way; so despite my embarrassment, I thought I should offer up my differing opinion in contrast to those who thought the pilot was actually too slow, boring, predictable or anticlimactic.
Anyway, moving beyond my wimpy watching abilities, something I took away from the first episode was a feeling of inconsistency, contradiction and unevenness. Perhaps given the subject matter and the show’s tagline “the nation was an open wound,” inconsistency was to some extent part of the point the producers were trying to make. Regardless, I think one of the main ways this uneven feeling was projected was in the visuals, most notably in the partial adaptation of traditional costume practices and the cinematography with the washed out, grayed color that was more intense in some scenes and less in others. The classic Hollywood Western costume trope is to have the good guys in white cowboy hats and the bag guys in black cowboy hats. This white versus black hat juxtaposition is intended to symbolize the two sides of morality: the heroes versus the villains. Cullen Bohannon is always dressed in all black, which includes a black cowboy hat. However, even though Cullen is a gunslinger who sports an iconic black cowboy hat, his character is more complex then his ensemble indicates. He is on a mission to seek revenge for the murder of his wife, which seems manly and “justified” enough, we learn that he freed his slaves one year before the war, and his seemingly unimpressive mumbling-style of speech all make him less of the villain archetype his costume suggests he should be. (This uncertainty of character is even more applicable considering the first impression we are given of Cullen is his gruesome murder at very close range of a Northern soldier in a church confessional.)
In my opinion, although this pilot contains most of the hallmarks attributed to the classic Western genre, such as gunslingers, battle, “working girls,” American Indians, grit and wide open panoramic views, by giving Cullen a somewhat modern sensibility a contradiction arises. Thus, the authenticity and consistency of the show’s premise and Cullen’s character are questionable. All of these consistencies, along with the multiple storylines that were slowly integrated into the plot and then abruptly cut short in choppy ways, explain part of this first episode’s problem.
I think the ending of the pilot speaks the most volume: the “zebra speech” with the splices of vast open land, Lily Bell wandering alone covered in blood, the destruction of life and land, and the railroad workers edited into Thomas Durant’s speech serve as a recap and hint of what is to come. This was too forced and fake. His words were powerful, symbolic and conveyed too much for the audience as if the audience couldn’t figure these things out on its own. When things are given away to the audience this easily, and most of these “gifts” were already apparent through visual cues, narrative and character development, it makes the audience less interested and less engaged. Yes, I understand the importance and job of a pilot to anchor the show and provide enough information across to make viewers tune in next week, but I think this could have been accomplished in a less overt way. Instead of spelling out the actions and motivations of the characters, it would have been better to close the episode with more mystery and an aura of unpredictability. I always think the sign of a good show or movie is one that keeps you thinking after you have turned off the TV or left the theater because you have had some visceral reaction or it spoke to you. The only visceral reaction I got here was disgust from my inability to stomach the gore. If I go by this standard of evaluation then Hell on Wheels was not too successful. However, I don’t want to judge it too quickly, and despite my uncontrollable need to cover my eyes more often than I would have liked, I am curious as to how the producers will move the show forward in a compelling and gripping way…

Hell on Wheels: Pilot

November 8, 2011

At the core of the best television shows is a complex, well-crafted cast of characters, a group of people whom the audience cares about and whose arcs are interesting to observe unfold. In the past, AMC has produced television shows focused around original, compelling characters whose decisions and motivations keep the audience engaged. As the Western genre is one that is generally filled with archetypes, it would have been interesting to see a show that would take these conventional characters and twist them, manipulate them into something gritty and surprising, like those found in Clint Eastwood’s dark western Unforgiven. Unfortunately, Hell on Wheels has not yet assigned any unexpected character traits to those inhabiting the lawless town, leaving us with a cast of fairly stock characters.

The central character of Hell on Wheels is Cullen Bohannon, slightly reminiscent of Eastwood’s Man with No Name but with a sillier name and a less interesting story. From the tense dialogue about his wife early on his motivations became obvious, and the exposition-heavy depiction of what is sure to develop into another revenge story lost my attention. Thomas Durant, an investor in the railroad Bohannon is employed by, is a Shakespearean character trapped in the Reconstruction Era, and his bombastic speeches (particularly his dramatic closing monologue) and acting style lend to the feeling that Hell on Wheels will tend away from the cinematic and towards the theatric. Elam is the intense, angry, recently freed slave working with Bohannon on the railroad and Lily, one half of a couple happily in love despite hardship, becomes a young widow when her husband is killed by a Native American attack; both are long exercised archetypes and I couldn’t help but find them stale. Although Bohannon and Durant as portrayed by Anson Mount and Colm Meaney are the most interesting and well-written of the group, still neither feels entirely fresh.

With the exception of a violent and engaging pre-credits teaser, the majority of the pilot moved along fairly slowly, methodically introducing characters and narrative plot points. But what Hell on Wheels lacks in engaging plot points it makes up for in scenery and cinematography, despite the somewhat theatrical quality. The wide-angle prairie shots, views of the horizon, and highly desaturated colors of the scenes echo the shooting style of another AMC series, The Walking Dead. Halfway through the episode, I found myself wishing that all of this actually was leading up to the zombie apocalypse; it might force one of these characters to do something original.

 

Hell On Wheels – “Pilot”

November 7, 2011

As far as perfectly solid pilots go, I really couldn’t ask for much more from Hell On Wheels. There were a few scenes that really grabbed me–the opening in the church, the raid, any scene with one-handed man, especially when he was drinking (and who will be sorely missed), and also anything with Colm Meany’s excellent Thomas Durant–but the pilot, as expected, was mostly necessary set-up. That said, it was done well enough that I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

 

I’m not all too familiar with westerns, but I felt like this stayed pretty close to the book, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Revenge always makes for enjoyable stories, and I like that the show seems to be more than just a buddy-cop Western with Colin and Elam slinging guns and getting over that whole slavery thing, like the posters kinda made it to seem–not that I’m against grotesque violence, which I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of.

What ultimately grabbed me about the pilot is the few, and slightly peculiar, liberties it took with the Western genre. I don’t think Hell On Wheels is going to flip the genre on its head and do something completely mindboggling with it (or maybe it will–you can never tell from the pilot), but I liked the risks it took. To start, the scene where Colin rides into camp towards the beginning with, The Dead Weather, of all bands playing in the background. For a show that, I thought, hit the nail on the head as far as crafting a period piece, this bit of anachronism caught me off guard, but not necessarily in a bad way. It (as well as the theme song) reminded me of that hat-drawn-low, gun at the ready feel of what I’d consider TV’s other big western right now, Justified; and the fact that creators Joe and Tony Gayton were willing to forego the strict rules of period pieces (something Matthew Weiner would never do) and include a song from 2009, made me think they’ve got a pretty good grasp on what they’re doing. The other seen that stood out was, obviously, Durant’s final speech, which, frankly, I liked a lot. I’m sure plenty will chalk it up to some sort of undiagnosed mental illness, but if we’re looking for pragmatic reasons for his ranting and raving I’d point to that drink he kept by his side. (Side note: Hell On Wheels definitely hit all of its sex, violence, and drinking quotas, which I’m guessing AMC requires for all its shows at this point). But as far as non-pragmatic reasons go, again I think it was a neat choice that showed how aware the Gayton’s are of what this show is and the shoes that it has to fill, and what they can do to make Hell On Wheels standout in the genre. I didn’t see the speech as talking down to the audience by explaining what was going on, but rather that it was a moment of intense personal reflection, a soliloquy of sorts, that kinda says to the viewer: You’ve heard this story before. You know the heroes and villains. You know the twists and turns that this will take–that Lily and Colin will probably end up together; that the Reverend is the anonymous sergeant; that Durant will stop at nothing to make as much money as possible and that in the end everyone in this tale seems to be a pawn in his little game–but without all these cliches and plots and whatnot, there is no story. “But remember this: Without me, and men like me, your glorious railroad will never be built,” he says. Hell On Wheels may not change the way we see westerns, but it’s shaping up to be a pretty good story.

Hell on Wheels – Hell on Wheels: Episode 101 – AMC

November 7, 2011

Hell on Wheels – Hell on Wheels: Episode 101 – AMC.

Review: AMCs Hell on Wheels a by-the-numbers Western – HitFix.com

November 7, 2011

Here’s the response of Alan Sepinwall, an excellent TV critic and someone who’s seen the first five episodes of Hell on Wheels.

Hell on Wheels – Hell on Wheels Sneak Peek: Episode 101, Pilot – AMC

November 6, 2011

Hell on Wheels – Hell on Wheels Sneak Peek: Episode 101, Pilot – AMC.

This Review of ‘Hell on Wheels’ may provoke a thought or two

November 6, 2011

‘Hell on Wheels’ on AMC — Review – NYTimes.com.