However much it might like to be, Hell on Wheels is no Deadwood. (And I can say that not even really having watched all that much Deadwood.) Although — would they even want to be Deadwood? The critics loved it, but it wasn’t much of a moneymaker. Chances are they’d much rather be Justified, but that’s a cop show with some vague Western touches, and this is Western through and through. It’s a very peculiar thing to do, launching a Western in this day and age. The genre isn’t entirely dead, but it’s definitely moribund. A time there was when Westerns were made by the dozens every year. These days, they’re made by the one, or maybe the two. And although genres have come back from the dead before, Hell on Wheels would need to be a lot better than it actually is in order to pull that off.
Although I don’t see the show making it onto my regular TV schedule, I do find its main character, Cullen Bohannon, kind of fascinating.
Ably played by ex-officio Clint Eastwood impersonator Anson Mount, Bohannon is meant to be a grim-eyed angel of death, stalking through the frontier wastes in search of vengeance and falling into the heroic role almost accidentally in the course of his travels. Which is pretty standard territory for a Western. The interesting part is that Bohannon’s a Civil War veteran, and he fought for the south. The vengeance he’s after is war vengeance. His wife had the misfortune of being in the part of Georgia what got marched through.
There’s also a Union veteran on the show. Bohannon’s opposite number is a security officer for the railroad who is known mostly (only?) as The Swede. He has some trauma of his own to work through, having been imprisoned at Andersonville and having been forced to do unspecified… things to survive there. The Swede is probably the best part of the show, for me. His particular sour, gloomy brand of psychosis is an interesting take on the ‘vicious enforcer’ character we see so often on serial dramas about lawlessness. And where you’d expect this kind of character to hew closely to his own twisted moral code, the Swede is charmingly corrupt, with a variety of hussles ranging from large-scale smuggling operations to shaking down local businessmen for beer money. It’s like if we saw Chris and Snoop from The Wire going around selling pirated DVDs — the effect is somehow incongruous.
Making the tormented antihero a Reb is something we could overlook (especially since he freed his slaves voluntarily a few years before the war). But when they go on to make the thoroughly villainous villain a Damnyankee, it starts to look like a pattern. What an interesting and morally ambiguous decision! How unusual!
No wait, what am I saying? It’s totally usual.
Westerns have been working through the trauma of the civil war for quite some time now. That clip is from Michael Curtiz’s Dodge City (1939). And when I said that Bohannon is a Clint Eastwood character, I was talking pretty specifically about The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), which is essentially the same setup, sans trains. The hero of Cold Mountain (2003) is a confederate deserter. Even Firefly, Joss Whedon’s space western, is pretty transparently about a space confederate. (The Browncoats were on the losing side of a galaxy-wide civil war, and the people they were fighting against had a much better industrial base.) There are plenty of earlier examples too. One of the farmers in Shane (1953) is a hotheaded ex-confederate named Stonewall. One of the passangers on John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), Hatfield, is a genteel Confederate soldier turned gambler. In Wyler’s The Westerner (1940), Judge Roy Bean likes to dress up in his old Confederate army uniform on special occasions. (The historical Roy Bean did fight for the South, as a blockade runner, but they play it up here a lot more than they need to.)
Now, whatever else the Confederacy was — and it was plenty — it was a government. Not a legitimate one, necessarily, but it did all the classic government stuff: issue currency, pass laws, levy taxes, raise armies, stick it to the working man. It quacked like a duck, is what I’m saying. But you would not know this to look at the Confederate characters in Westerns. Being a Confederate for these guys isn’t a way of being part of a community: it’s a way to mark yourself as outside of everyone else’s community. Dodge City is unusual in that there’s at least enough Confederates to field a small men’s chorus, but even then, only one of these characters actually does anything else in the film. Being a Confederate in a Western is sort of like being a Goth in any other kind of movie. Every Goth I ever knew was into the scene primarily for the community, and pierced their soft bits as much out of solidarity as for any other reason. Movie Goths are usually islands unto their own gothy selves. And in Westerns, each Confederate is a confederacy of one.
That’s not to say that the Confederate characters in these movies are all exactly the same, though. The earlier the film, the more of a big deal it is that the character took up arms against his country. The pre-1950 characters are morally ambiguous: Hatfield’s an antihero at best, Bean is an oddly sympathetic villain. In order to be reintigrated into society, they both need to die. Shane is an interesting case: Stonewall is clearly part of society, but his role within that society is being kind of a hotheaded jerk, and that leads directly to his death.
What’s the takeaway here? Dixie symbolizes… standing up for yourself in face of impossible odds? Northern aggression? Getting your ass handed to you? There’s no irony in this music. It turns Dixie into the stuff of tragedy, and Stonewall’s death into something heroic.
The romanticization of the Confederacy is not in itself all that surprising, especially to readers who have ever visited the south. What surprising is the fact that it gets more and more intense as time goes on — and that these movies aren’t being made by good ‘ol boys, but by latte-swilling coastal elites. (Or even by Italians!) By the 1970s, the ex-Confederate isn’t a side character anymore: Josey Wales is the hero of the film, and although he’s still an outsider, he gets reintegrated into society not by death but by the love of a good woman. By the time you get to the 90s and oughts, being part of society is no longer something you even want. Mal from Firefly hates society, and the audience is never given a reason to think that he’s wrong to do so. The hero in Cold Mountain just wants to get back to his wife — the rest of the culture can go hang, for all he cares. And Bohannon wants only revenge, although we’ll see whether that lasts, or whether Hell On Wheels follows the Josey Wales model through to end). All of them are pretty well unambiguously heroic, at least where it counts. Bohannon can be an ornery cuss, and Josey Wales spits on a dog(!?) on multiple(?!?!) occasions, but when the chips are down, they shoot the people that need shooting.
Why? For heaven’s sake, why?
There are two reasons I’ve come up with, one simple, one more complicated, both utterly speculative. The first is simply that America loves an underdog. A Confederate soldier in the aftermath of the civil war has the cards stacked against him in the way that a victorious Union soldier does not. The second explanation, which I like better, is that America can’t keep its wars straight. The earlier films tended to make the Confederates problematic characters not because people were still holding a grudge about the Civil War, but rather because World War I (and eventually II) were fresh in everyone’s minds as good wars that America had done well to get involved in, making the idea of siding against America very hard to accept. By this way of reckoning, Shane is “really” about the Korean War, and The Outlaw Josey Wales and the rest are “really” about Vietnam — wars where America’s moral high ground was much less clear. The versions of the Confederacy (or rather — again — of the lone Confederate) that we see in each of these are revealing, especially with some of the later ones. Josey Wales spends most of his time running around the backwoods trying to avoid the police, eventually settling on a farm where he’s effectively part of a commune. He feels a lot more like a radical activist than he feels like a rebel. The Cold Mountain guy is, effectively, a draft dodger — another Vietnam archetype. And Bohannon, and Hell on Wheels? My first instinct is to say that it’s still Vietnam all over. For all that our nation is engaged in multiple wars even as I type this, I don’t think that our national conversation on war has really moved past Vietnam yet. But I will point out that Hell on Wheels is the first Western I’ve seen that tries to grapple with the psychological fallout of combat in any meaningful way — and although that does still work splendidly for Vietnam, it’s also something that we hear a lot about with regard to the first Gulf War.
With this in mind, I think it’s quite interesting that the death of the Western as a viable genre coincides almost exactly with the end of America’s draft. If the genre really is the way we process the drama of our most recent war, it may be that we no longer make these movies because we no longer feel like wars are something we really have to process, as a nation. Like the fighting of them, that has fallen into the category of other people’s problems.