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Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Disc review by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits

Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray Disc)

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Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season
2011 (2012) - Entertainment One/Nomadic Pictures (Entertainment One)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on May 15th, 2012
Also available on DVD


Program Rating: A
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: B+

Those western fans looking back fondly at HBO's late-lamented Deadwood series now have a worthy new series to fill the gap - AMC's Hell on Wheels. Currently filming its second season for AMC, Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season is available to us on Blu-ray from Entertainment One.

The story line is that of the building of the U.S. transcontinental railroad beginning in the immediate post Civil War years. For classic film fans who may have been brought up on Paramount's 1939 Union Pacific film, we're in territory far from that of the sanitized one of Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea. Like Deadwood with its pageant of graphic events but without its unrelently unnecessary strong language, we get the experience of realistic, not pretty western life filtered through a vast cast of disparate characters and events at once horrific and profound.

The term "Hell on Wheels" has a double meeting - both the reference to the whole vast enterprise of building a railway, as well as the name of the traveling town of workers and hangers-on that accompany the construction across the western territories. Amongst the many principal characters are ex-Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) who finds "Hell on Wheels" fertile ground for his war of revenge on Union soldiers responsible for the murder of his family during the Union march into Georgia; the Union Pacific tycoon and boss Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) who doesn't want to have his track route follow a straight line so that he can take better advantage of generous government subsidies; the young wife (Dominique McElligott) of a consumptive surveyor who survives an Indian attack to preserve the railroad's advance survey plans when her husband is killed; and sub-plots and characters such as the likes of The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) who acts as a sort of head of security and muscle for Durant and is constantly at odds with Bohannon. Surrounding these and many other subplots is a richly observed picture of western town-life including bar-locales and sad drunks, unappealing whores, questionable respect for human life, and overt prejudice. The contrast of the virgin western territory through which this whole panoply of life passes through is striking indeed, beautifully evoked through the impressive Alberta location work.

The ten episodes of Hell on Wheels' first season are presented on three 1.78:1 Blu-ray discs. The images are very crisp, and surface textures are very well-rendered giving a superb sense of reality. Colours are well-saturated, dealing with interiors and exteriors equally satisfactorily. A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix offers well-balanced dialogue, sound effects such as gunshots, as well as conveying an effective ambient surround field. One will notice, however, that dialogue is sometimes difficult to make out as the actors don't always enunciate clearly or were not well-recorded. English subtitling is provided. The supplementary material is extensive and informative in its featurette-based coverage (nearly 2 hours in total) of characters, plot aspects, and aspects of production (including a major train crash sequence). There is also a section of more than 20 minutes of rather raw-looking behind-the-scenes footage. A trailer is included.

Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season on Blu-ray is well worth your time and monetary investment indeed! Western fans rejoice!

Barrie Maxwell
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