Film Review: Hell on Wheels

By Jazmin Justo

“HELL ON WHEELS” premiered in East Village Cinemas as part of the 38th Asian American International Film Festival. This AMC special is one of the few shows in American mainstream television that centers a around the history of the Transcontinental Railroad and for a first, features the immigrant Chinese workers as an integral part of its construction, some as major characters in the series. This is also the first collaboration with AMC and the AAIFF festival, making this a very special screening featuring special guests Executive Producer and Showrunner John Wirth, and actors Bryon Mann, Tzi Ma and Angela Zhou.

The first episode introduces the audience to Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) a stockholder of the Central Pacific Railroad and surveyor who found a route to Utah. He returns to Truckee, California as the company is making its way to the Rocky Mountains. At first, it’s expected to be a typical Western until one of the businessmen Mr. Chang (Byron Mann) actually speaks to Cullen. One would be surprised considering that in other western movies, Asians aren’t given roles of high status let alone, a major character of high importance. In this case, Mr. Chang is the main workforce supplier and provider of goods for the railroad business in the series. During their small chat, the audience is also introduced to another group of alienated immigrants, the Scottish and Irish who were also a part of the railroad workforce. Although they are European, they were also discriminated during this time and were paid lower wages in contrast to the Americans leading the expedition but more than the average Chinese worker who were earning 15 cents per day.

Later in the episode, the audience is introduced to Tao (Tzi Ma) and Fong (Angela Zhou) who speak broken English but are able to translate orders to the other workers. During their work, Cullen becomes friends with Fong and is stunned to hear that they are being skimped out of their wages, a common phenomenon that occurs often with immigrant workers. When Cullen confronts Chang about this, he is black mailed and told to mind his own business.

Through these confrontations, the audience can sense the high stakes each man holds in the railroad business. The tension rises in the 3rd episode when the Irish workers decide to take matters into their own hands and attack Chang and his establishment. Clashes between the races and strikes were also a reality of that time, but how they actually occurred is part of the producer’s dramatization, hence the part that makes this a show and not a documentary.

Through the use of oral history from families who had a great-great grandparents from that era, China’s history of Guangdong, and America’s history of the 1860’s, AMC is able to produce a very realistic presentation of characters that could have possibly existed.

Unfortunately, because of the mass migration and lack of record keeping of the individual’s over time, it did take the producers a long time to be able to write the script and characters to make an accurate portrayal of this time period. Following the screening, Executive Producer and Showrunner, John Wirth, and actors Bryon Mann, Tzi Ma and Angela Zhou held a Q&A and took photos with the audience.

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