The opening titles of The English

Emily Blunt is the star and an executive producer for The English alongside Chaske Spencer as her co-star. (Spencer appears in Wild Indian (US-France 2021) reviewed on this blog last year.) The English is a BBC-Amazon Studios production intended as a high profile long-form narrative for streaming. It’s broadcast transmission on BBC2 has been unusually positioned at 9 pm on a Thursday evening and because the episodes are of slightly different lengths, they have an impact on scheduling. Generally they are around 50 minutes but the last episode runs to 69 minutes. The English was made available as a six part ‘box set’ at the same time as the first episode was broadcast.

Cornelia arrives at a remote staging stop in Kansas having travelled up from New Orleans

This is the first long-form narrative Western for UK broadcast TV (i.e. on terrestrial channels) that I can remember and it is certainly an original proposition well worth exploring. Written and directed by Hugo Blick it attempts to tell a revenge story that also involves commentaries on many of the issues about the ‘opening’ of the West (or the ‘closing of the frontier’) that have ‘revised’ the genre repertoire of the Western since the 1950s, but more so in the last few decades. Blunt plays Cornelia Locke, an aristocratic Englishwoman who arrives in Kansas in 1890, searching for the man she claims killed her son. Here she meets Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee scout recently retired from the US Cavalry. The pair help each other out in the first of a series of violent confrontations in the narrative. From this point, the pair will be together, though Eli’s aims for his future don’t seem as clearly motivated as Cornelia’s. Soon, however, it will become evident that Blick’s story is going to include numerous flashbacks and the pair may be more connected than they initially realise. The story will actually start in 1875 when the first cattle from the South are arriving in Wyoming. It will end in the Powder River region that would experience conflicts between ranchers and homesteaders in Johnson County (1899-1893) – the subject of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (US 1980) and other ‘Range War’ films. The presentation of the narrative, however, involves a bookending device. In the pre-credit sequence Cornelia introduces the story from her English mansion in 1903 with some brief statements. The whole narrative will then end with the remainder of the 1903 sequence.

The look of a European Western . . .
The tiny speck between the Cornelia and Eli is a rider approaching from distance

Because the broadcast version is only two episodes old, there are NO SPOILERS here. I simply want to make to some general points. This is, in effect, a five hour plus film, presented in a CinemaScope ratio at close to 2.40:1. I’ve already made a reference to Heaven’s Gate and there are several other references. The overall look and feel of the film resembles the Italian and Spanish Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. That’s partly because much of the film was shot in Spain, but on the plains of La Mancha rather than the arid region of the Andalucian hinterland so familiar from the early films of Leone and co. La Mancha means that we get grassy plains more appropriate for presentation of Wyoming. The images are the responsibility of the Catalan cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer, whose work was recently on display in Official Competition (Argentina-Spain 2021) and they are accompanied by a music score by the Argentinian, Federico Jusid. The score includes several songs, some of which are credited in the subtitles, but not in the credits, one of the problems with TV dramas which don’t take credits seriously. The songlist can be found here, however, and I’m pleased to have them identified, especially the track by the Canadian trio The Wailin’ Jennys. The subtitles are another issue. the plot of the film is complex and some key information lies in the dialogue. There was quite a bit of dialogue that I couldn’t follow. I’m quite prepared to recognise this might be due to my declining hearing and my lack of a soundbar/decent TV audio. I’m happy to put on the HofH subtitles but though I can access subtitles on iPlayer on my computer, my Smart TV cannot detect them on iPlayer.

Rafe Spall is the villain Melmont
Stephen Rea is the sheriff of a small town

The casting includes quite a few other Brits, most of whom will be familiar outside the UK via international cinema films. In the first episode we get Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds and by episode 2, Stephen Rea has appeared as a town sheriff with his Northern Irish accent intact. Rafe Spall plays the villain in the film. There is some historical justification for the accents as British migrants did arrive in the West after 1865. There is also a flashback to London at one point, but only interiors which were probably shot in Madrid or elsewhere. I thought about these scenes and I remembered that Americans in London were not uncommon in British stories in the late 19th century. Perhaps the best example is the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1888), which includes an American back story. (The later Holmes novel The Valley of Fear from 1915, also has an American back story.) The influence of European Westerns and Sergio Leone in particular can be seen in several ways. The opening credits are presented in a series of ‘cut out’ animations, silhouettes against a simple two or three colour drawn background (see the image at the head of the post). Colomer includes frequent extreme long shots, often of riders on the horizon line. The use of low angles and deep focus is also familiar from Leone’s work as is the extreme violence and the use of unusual props of various kinds and a focus on the weapons carried by various characters. Cornelia is a skilled archer and eventually has her bow and quiver attached to her saddle alongside a rifle scabbard.

Chaske Spencer as Eli Whipp, whose story will connect with many other Native Americans in the narrative. He and Cornelia are the central characters

Hugo Blick is well-known in the UK for his TV drama work, most recently Black Earth Rising (2018) and earlier The Honourable Woman (2014), both major productions with casts of international stars. I haven’t seen any of his previous work but I note that he appears to research carefully and prepare well for each and the last three serials all include very active female characters operating in dangerous situations. There is a lot to be discussed in The English. The title is explained as the phrase that Native Americans used to describe all the whites who have travelled West, whatever nationality they might have claimed originally. As one character points out to Eli, “Now you’ve left the army, you have no rights. There’s just ‘us’ and ‘them'”. The film picks out the different nations of Pawnee, Cheyenne and others. One aspect of the plot refers to an incident like the real ‘Massacre at Wounded Knee’ (in 1890 in Wyoming). Later there is a reference to a Wild West Show offering re-enactments of the Indian War conflicts as entertainment. The whites too are are drawn from historical figures like the irregular soldiers known as ‘bushwhackers’ or ‘Jaywalkers’ or ‘redlegs’ around Kansas, Missouri and other states before and after the Civil War. Blick also picks up on the killing of the buffalo and the effective taming of Indian nations by starving them into submission. None of the characters are historical figures according to the standard statement included in the credits.

Emily Blunt as Cornelia – a believable action figure?

Before I watched the series I finished reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, his epic novel about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana through much of the territory represented in The English, but in 1875. This was a coincidence, I didn’t know about The English when I started the novel. It’s a novel often celebrated as the greatest Western novel of all and it was adapted as a celebrated TV mini-series with Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones. I haven’t watched the adaptation but it’s worth considering the novel and this new serial. How do they compare? I thought the cinematography for The English clearly represented the plains in the sense that you can see and hear characters far into the distance. The plains are vast but  but there isn’t much distraction. Both narratives feature only a few women and many male cowboys, warriors and soldiers, but the women who are featured are distinct characters and not simply ‘types’. Emily Blunt is very impressive and believable as an action character. Both narratives are full of violent incidents and there were examples of similar incidents appearing in both. But if there is a difference it’s possibly that there seem to be just a few more ‘positive’ characters in the novel. The English is relentlessly about revenge and there are arguably fewer welcoming, warm-hearted characters. I enjoyed the serial but there are still parts I don’t totally understand and I’ll have to rewatch with the subs. Here is the short BBC trailer (the Amazon Prime trailer is longer and bloodier):