Wednesday August 1, 2012
By FIONA HO
American actor Anson Mount is scruffier and sexier than ever as a conflicted former Confederate soldier in Hell On Wheels.
TO be perfectly honest, I haven’t seen much of American actor Anson Mount aside from him playing the bad boy Ben Kimble in the 2002 flick, Crossroads (which was Britney Spears’ big-screen debut).
Of course, that was back in the day when Spears, at the height of her singing career, was known for her sunshine-and-daisies image and was the poster girl for teenage celibacy. And though Mount played the rebel she couldn’t get enough of in the film, they were later nominated as the Worst Screen Couple in the Golden Raspberry Award.
A decade later, 39-year-old Mount is scruffier and sexier than ever. He raises hell as a conflicted former Confederate soldier, Cullen Bohannon, in the television series Hell On Wheels.
The story takes off in 1865, in post-Civil War America when the former soldier journeys to the Union Pacific Railroad’s westward construction of the first transcontinental railroad to seek work. At the same time, he was also seeking revenge on the Union soldiers who killed his wife and son.
He gets hired by the railroad foreman Daniel Johnson (Ted Levine), and ends up supervising an all-black crew to prepare the terrain for track laying. Among the crew is Elam Ferguson (played by the actor and hip-hop artiste, Common), a stout-hearted, emancipated slave who is striving to attain true freedom in a world still sodden with prejudice. It doesn’t help that Johnson, his boss and an ex-soldier, is an overt racist (he calls them “blackies”).
Through conversation and multiple shots of whiskey, Bohannon learns more about his wife’s death from Johnson, who knows the name of the murderer but is killed before the name is given.
Perched atop the status hierarchy is the greedy entrepreneur Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), who is taking full advantage of the changing times in his “mad, noble quest” to expand the Union Pacific Railroad westward in order complete the transcontinental railroad. I thought Meaney was thoroughly despicable as a ruthless opportunist who would resort to any means to gain profit. In fact, I would very much like to run him over had Doc – with his superfluous vocabulary and crude shenanigans – not been so entertaining to watch.
Meanwhile, beautiful blonde Irish actress Dominique McElligott, who plays Lily Bell, stops the series from being a sausage fest. She accompanies her ailing husband Robert (Robert Moloney) as he surveys the landscape for the Union Pacific but is killed by the Cheyennes (a group of Native Americans) in a surprise attack. Bell is traumatised and is left with little choice but to learn to cope with being a widow in a strange land.
On the other side of the coin, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), a Cheyenne, gets baptised and goes under the tutelage of Reverand Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) in the church.
Hell On Wheels clearly strives to examine the struggles and hardships of rebuilding and repairing the country after the bloodiest war on American soil.
On a broader spectrum, the series also touches on the railroad’s institutionalised greed and corruption, the immigrant experience, the plight of the newly emancipated African-Americans during the era, and the raging native Americans who were forced to make way for progress.
Now, I am not sure how the Americans would react to this but I did feel a lump in my throat at the brutal depictions of slavery. The actor, Common, in particular, makes an interesting choice for the role of the angry and tormented Ferguson.
On the other hand, Mount, who had apparently been reluctant to take up his role in Crossroads because he thought it was too “lame” and “cheesy”, shines as the emotionally battered Bohannon.
Sure, he doesn’t have a pop princess in his arm this time around, but the raffish and certainly more matured actor really doesn’t need one.
As for the series, with a tagline like: “Blood will be spilled. Lives will be lost. Men will be ruined”, you can definitely expect plenty of action and gory surprises. But really, it is the excellent cast (Mount, especially) that keeps the wheels turning.
The 10-episode Hell On Wheels airs on Saturdays at 8pm on the Sundance Channel (Astro b.yond Ch 438).