How the West was Undone

AMC’s new series Hell on Wheels, a western about the making of the transcontinental railroad, began Sunday night. But it’s unlikely to be a celebration of Manifest Destiny, a concept the filmmakers and cast apparently view with horror. Check out this oddly downbeat promo video, in which they fall all over themselves condemning the railroad for bringing civilization westward:

The series is an “anti-western,” according to its executive producer, Joe Gayton. “Hell on Wheels is dragging the urban blight in the industry of the East across the West, and changing it forever. It’s kind of the beginning of the end of the West as they knew it.” Another executive producer, David von Ancken, indicates the landscape behind him and describes the show as “the battle of man, scarring nature, versus this, the beauty of nature.” It’s “the story of the train cutting through nineteenth-century America and bringing ‘civilization.’” He actually gestures the air quotes around “civilization,” to make sure you know he takes the politically correct and fashionably ironic view of the concept.

Yet another executive producer, Gayton’s brother Tony, says in a different promo video that they’re trying to convey “the brutality of imposing civilization,” and lumps Christianity in with “prostitution, whiskey-houses, and gambling” as plagues the railroad spread to what must surely have been an edenic Native American landscape. Producer Jeremy Gold exactly echoes these phrases about urban blight and the brutality of imposing civilization “where it maybe doesn’t belong” – clearly these are agreed-upon talking points that the filmmakers desperately want to hammer home.

In all fairness, the series itself may prove to be evenhanded. But the producers and actors here seem to have bought into the naïve, multiculturalist proposition that civilization is destruction and savagery, and the primitive world is harmony and peace; that Civilized Man is corrupt and greedy, but the Noble Savage is, well, noble; and that American history can be reduced to the story of the European ravaging and exploitation of non-European peoples. Here’s hoping that Hell on Wheels will avoid derailing on these clichés and find something uplifting and grand along the journey.