Review of the Disney+ series ‘The English’: “Exciting and successful Western”
Exciting, layered and successful Western with a central role for women and Native Americans.
English is a very successful western miniseries. In six episodes, a seemingly simple revenge story becomes a complex portrait of many peoples in a developing country that is based in part on genocide, forced displacement, rape, disease, death and destruction. And all this summed up in an exciting adventure, sometimes even romantic, through vast, beautifully illuminated landscapes.
As befits a good western, Lady Cornelia Locke and her partner, Sergeant Eli Whipp, are often filmed from a distance. Unfortunately, writer-director Hugo Blick didn’t listen to John Ford (the master of the western), who once told Steven Spielberg that for interesting and dynamic images, the horizon must be placed above or below the image. This lesson was recently memorably enacted in Spielberg’s own The Fabelmans. However, with Blick the horizon is usually right in the middle.
Title English refers in part to Lady Locke, who travels from England to and across the United States in 1890 to exact revenge on the man she holds responsible for her son’s death. The title also refers to the English in general who came to North America and first drove out and then largely exterminated the variety of indigenous peoples from their home countries. The English were not alone in this, by the way.
Locke acknowledges this painful historical truth and misses no opportunity to confront it with people of different (European) backgrounds. The result is a series of interesting dialogues, in which people go out of their way to justify all of this and their presence there. It is also important that not only white prospects, including Irish, Scottish and German, but also various indigenous peoples pass through.
Eli Whipp is a Pawnee scout for the US Army, just like there was in real life. He was born Wounded Wolf, but chose an English name and a job in the army because he believes the fight against the new ruler is doomed to fail. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a classic gunslinger who won’t let anyone stop him on his way to his goal. Unfortunately for him, that goal is now as mythical as the Wild West: He wants to return to the traditional Pawnee homeland, but that no longer exists.
Along the way he meets a fellow countryman, but also Kickapoo and Cherokee, among others. The massacre of a Cheyenne town plays a large part in a series of flashbacks, and after it burns down, a town is established in that exact location and becomes the center of the cattle trade. Therefore, the future of the US is literally built on the removal of the local indigenous population. But in addition to the passive, passive role of the Cheyenne in this story, all the native speaking characters in English everyone has their own vision of the past and the right path to follow.
For example, Blick does not portray Native Americans as a homogeneous group of savages, noble or otherwise, as is often the case in the genre, but rather as a highly diverse collection of peoples, with their own customs, past, and vision of the future. . He calls attention to the fact that it is precisely whites who comb and collect hair, in rejection of the incorrect cliché that this was typical Native American behavior that Europeans fell victim to.
Locke at one point questions Whipp why the Pawnee never recorded their history on paper, when they have such a rich history. He explains that it was passed down orally from generation to generation, that it was a good system until they were persecuted, killed and told that this was civilization. Writing history only became important when the tradition of storytelling became impossible, because there was no one left to tell that story and then it was too late.
English it is a well-considered portrait of a society in transition and the terrible violence on which it is built. A society consisting of many different peoples and an acknowledgment of the violence and injustice that has been done to the many previous peoples. The hints of a less than convincing romance, the somewhat forced narrative structure full of flashbacks and poorly developed secondary characters do get in the way a bit. Getting the balance right between that portrayal and the sometimes very exciting story is never quite right, but it’s a commendable attempt.
English can be seen in Disney+.