But beneath, in the depths of the Alberta wilderness, is Hell on Wheels.
Hell on Wheels is the new supercharged show created by Endemol for AMC, the
folks that gave the world Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
With the tagline: ‘Blood will be spilled, lives will be lost, men will be
ruined,’ this gritty cinematic Western focuses on mid 19th century
post-Civil War America and the building of the first transcontinental
But it’s not all about steam trains, it’s mainly about riveting characters who
go off the rails.
It stars steely hunk Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate
soldier dead set on avenging his wife’s death.
Two British talents also take lead roles – Irish stars Colm Meaney, who plays
ruthless railroad head honcho Thomas Durant, and Dominique McElligott as
sensitive but strong English widow Lily Bell.
Already a hit in the States, Hell on Wheels premieres in the UK on TCM this
And I was one of the first reporters in the world to be allowed onto the set
where they’re now filming the second series.
Spending a day taking part in gunslinging and horseback riding along with
exploring the specially built set transported me 150 years back in time.
A steam train sits waiting on part of the railroad close to the Bow River.
Nearby is a town straight out of the 1860s complete with a saloon, gun makers,
hardware store and whorehouse.
The tough terrain at the heart of the Native American Tsuu T’ina Nation
reservation rises all around as the weather swings from a snowstorm to the
baking heat of the sun.
At the time the railroad was built, it was a daily slog for survival.
People died every day working on the feat and the town itself was a dangerous
habitat to live in thanks to gunfights and battles on all sides via racial
strife and conflicts with Native Americans.
I’m sworn to secrecy about what happens but I did get to mingle with Bohannon
and dozens of moustachioed confederate soldiers, wander around the town, get
handy with guns like Bohannon’s weapon of choice the Griswold, learn
on-screen fighting techniques with one of the best stuntmen in the business
and hone my riding skills just like the stars of the show.
Leading man Anson sums up Hell on Wheels for me.
“It’s about the construction of the transcontinental railroad but it’s not a
show about engineering,” he tells me.
“There’s guns. It’s about killing. And whisky drinking.”
Gunfire echoes all around as a particularly heart-stopping scene is being
Off-screen, I’m given a lesson in sharpshooting by Hell on Wheels armourer
With countless years of experience in the business and the proud owner of one
of the biggest and best antique gun collections in North America, I’m in
good hands with Brian.
I’ve shot guns before for The Sun, but they’ve always been modern day weapons.
This time I got to pack authentic pistols from the real Wild West.
As shots ring out during a take, Brian sportingly allows me to take aim at
Even so, safety, he says, is his prime concern and he always casts a keen eye
over each scene, ready to pull the plug if it gets too dangerous for the
Then it’s time to fight like a man with hand-to-hand combat.
Stunt co-ordinator Brent Woolsey has been behind big screen action sequences
in everything from Inception to Rise of the Planet of the Apes to Romeo +
He teaches me a few nifty and realistic stunt punches.
Brent says he loves working on the show because there are no special effects
He tells me: “It looks more genuine if you can do it for real.”
I stepped straight into the scenes of Hell on Wheels thanks to an hour’s
horseriding at the Rafter Six Ranch.
This is where Angelina stayed with Brad while he shot The Assassination of
Jesse James and isn’t far from where Brokeback Mountain was filmed.
And it has been in existence since the 1880s – not long after the era depicted
in Hell on Wheels.
You’re matched with a horse who has a similar demeanour to you and I’m paired
with Chilli – who is chilled with a touch of fire in her spirit.
We go on an adventure through alpine forests, on mountains high above the
Kananaskis River, across expansive plains and along muddy trails.
Afterwards I meet ranch owner and real life cowboy Stan Cowley.
Stan was raised on the outdoors and grew up alongside Native Americans. He
even became a blood brother with medicine man Walking Buffalo.
His nature and equine skills have seen him appear in Westerns just like Hell
The show’s set is just 30 minutes southeast of Calgary in the spectacular
province of Alberta – where many films have been shot including the original
Superman movies, Unforgiven, Legends of The Fall, Open Range and even
Inception, which was partially made there.
Calgary is also where William and Kate visited last summer.
The Sun can now join their ranks, along with the likes of Pope John Paul II,
the Dalai Lama, US presidents and British PMs, to be “white-hatted” – the
equivalent to being given the keys to the city.
I’m presented with a white hat after placing a hand on my heart and promising
to “extend exceptional amounts of heartwarming Western spirit… to all the
people and critters I meet.”
After spending time following in the tracks of the characters from Hell on
Wheels, I’ll definitely have that heartwarming Western spirit in me for
quite some time to come.
Brand new cinematic American Western series Hell on Wheels premieres on TCM
from Sunday May 20 at 9pm and is repeated on Thursdays at 9pm.
For more information on Calgary go to www.visitcalgary.com.