TAlthough Hugo Blick was born in Henley-on-Thames, he could have been a cowboy. When he was 18, his concerned parents decided he needed to have his stubbornness beaten out of him. He was packed off to Montana and placed under the tutelage of a family friend who happened to be an avid outdoorsman and former US Air Force captain.
“I was seen as needing a stabilizing influence,” the 57-year-old writer, director and actor recalled over video call from New York. The Air Force captain taught Blick how to shoot and hunt. “We apologize to all the vegans out there,” he says. He also learned how to spin a horse. Even in the late 80s, Montana was a wilder west than anything else on the M4 corridor. “Winters where temperatures drop below -60F are not uncommon and life out there can be difficult. The ghosts of 1890s frontier harshness still haunted the place, at least for me.”
Over half a lifetime, these skills and experiences proved useful to Blick when he made The English, the beautiful and fascinatingly subversive six-part television western he wrote and directed, starring Emily Blunt as an uprooted English aristocrat who was troubled in the wild west and Chaske Spencer. as a majestic, soulful, psychologically wounded Indian.
Both Blunt and Spencer play characters whose paths fatefully cross while on their respective revenge missions. She has come from London to hunt down the man who killed her son. A soul torn between serving as an American cavalry scout and his Pawnee ancestry, he has his own demons to exorcise, not least the barbaric advance of European civilization that has driven him and other Native Americans from their ancestral lands. But also a certain white devil in the form of Rafe Spall’s diabolical cockney chancer whom Spencer witnessed commit a massacre with a corrupt gang of US army lackeys.
Initially, Blick cast himself in a minor role. It seemed like a reasonable decision. After all, his first career was as an actor. He was, among other things, the young Jack Napier in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman who memorably kills Bruce Wayne’s parents before saying, “Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?” In addition, Blick can ride a horse with confidence. But he gave up the role when he found out he would have to pay an insurance premium of £50,000.
The English is reminiscent of iconic westerns such as John Ford’s The Searchers from 1956 or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven from 1992 in being a revenge-based chase drama, but has more twists on that format than a horse-tied lasso. Instead of alpha white male avengers, Blick gives us a gun-toting English rose of a heroine with Katniss Everdeen-style archery chops, fighting 19th-century misogyny in 21st-century terms. “You want to rape me,” Lady Cornelia Locke tells Ciarán Hind’s evil hotelier in the opening episode, as she sits in a beautiful but wilderness-inappropriate pink dress under his terrifying gaze. “I’m realistic about issues of consent,” he counters. “Then fuck a horse,” she says.
Even more subversively, the second protagonist is not just a Native American hero in a western played by an Indian. This is hardly a minor issue. While the first Westerns imagined Indians as barely individualized hordes whose historical destiny, like that of the buffalo, was to be hunted to extinction, the so-called revisionist Westerns assigned them souls and personalities. However, the larger the Native American protagonist, the less likely they were to be played by a person of color. Hence Mary McDonnell as Stands with a Fist in Kevin Costner’s 1990 Dances with Wolves. Hence also one of Blick’s favorite westerns, Hombre, where Paul Newman played a white man raised by an Apache family. “Newman later said he regretted the fact that an Indian didn’t play the part. I think he was too hard on himself about it.
The English is thus a subversive revision of the revisionist Western, as it has a woman and a colored man as the protagonists of the drama. Spencer plays a hero in the Eastwood mold, though his existential conflict is made clear by the fact that instead of being a man with no name, he’s a man with two: his Pawnee name Wounded Wolf and his army handle, Sergeant Eli Whipp. “If I was a seven-year-old boy, I wouldn’t want to be Clint Eastwood without Chaske Spencer,” says Blick.
The inspiration for this character came from another of Blick’s teenage experiences in Montana. “I got a hunting buddy I called the chief. He lived on a reservation and was obviously not a chief. So there was a casual racism in the relationship. He called me English.”
Then one day Chief disappeared, leaving two bags that he said he would pick up later. “He never came back. I never found out his real name, nor did he find out mine. He didn’t need what was in the bags. And that gave me the heart of the idea for The English.” In his drama, Eli tells Lady Cornelia, “The difference between what you want and what you need is what you can pack on a horse.”
What would you pack on your horse, I ask Blick? “Water and unshelled peanuts,” he answers easily, as if he has already figured out how to live in the end times.
“The Pawnee were semi-migratory people,” says Blick, “so they would be used to packing up their homes and going away. I’ve always had sympathy for the idea that home is what you carry, not a place.” And that’s probably a lesson for Lady Cornelia, whose identity has so far been measured in bricks, mortar and country estates.
Blick sent his first draft to representatives of the Pawnee and Cheyenne nations, and “They had a plea. Don’t let him die. The Indian always dies before the end in westerns,” he says.
Blick made his name as a television writer with the 2000 comedy Marion and Geoff in which the hero, divorced cabbie Keith played by Rob Brydon, longed to go home. “He wanted nothing more than to be at home in his slippers with Marion.” But for both Keith and Eli, there is no way home. Keith lost his in divorce; Eli and the Pawnee people lost theirs as the American Dream expanded its nightmarish frontier.
Blick has since become an outstanding television writer who, every few years, releases a sophisticated series that subverts a dramatic genre, while often confounding critics. In 2011, his seven-part BBC cop The Shadow Line, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Eccleston, left me clueless. In 2014, he made the BBC drama The Honorable Woman, an award-winning spy thriller starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as an Anglo-Jewish woman, as Lady Cornelia, uprooted from her comfortable London home and confronted with the weight of history, this time in the form of the the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 2017, Black Earth Rising starred Michaela Coel as a Rwandan-born British lawyer involved in the case of a Rwandan militia leader, whom her white adoptive mother is prosecuting for war crimes.
Why so many interesting female protagonists? “Only a psychotherapist could get to the bottom of it. But I’ve always been more comfortable with women. At school I was much happier with women and when I played football I always shook the hands of opponents who scored goals. I’ve always been antipathetic to masculinist attitudes.”
Blick uses Western tropes to explore favorite themes: misogyny, amalgamation, the English class system, racism, the ravages of imperialism and capitalism – but above all, the Freudian return of the repressed. On this last point, it is striking that a new frontier town is built over the bones of the massacred, whose spilled blood fuels the drama.
Across six episodes, there’s enough gunplay and bloodshed to satisfy even the most ardent Second Amendment enthusiast. So much so that Blick has a slight concern. “I suspect it might play well in America’s ‘red-wall’ states, i.e., the Republican-dominated heartland. He worries that the drama might appear to favor rather than problematize that staple of Hollywood: the rugged American individual who shoots first and never ask questions.
It’s a typical Blick drama in its narrative switching complexity: “The revenge format is driving, forward-looking. What I want to do is trace the arrow of that time, but also go back to find out what motivates the desire for revenge.”
The English is more enjoyable than anything Blick has done before. Cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer and Blick have created one of the most visually sumptuous dramas you’ll see this year, filmed amid epic Spanish rock formations rather than the American West. “We shot all the time in the afternoons to get the slanted light of the golden hour. I learned that from Clint Eastwood.”
An even greater pleasure is that Blick has simply and touchingly written a love story that affects to be condemned. “I’m so glad you said that,” says Blick when I told him this. “It’s a love story, isn’t it? Let’s not forget that. Woody Allen wrote me and said, ‘Good luck with your horse opera,’ which I thought was funny. But he’s right. It’s an opera, a place for heightened emotions in a mythical space. That’s what the best westerns have always been.”
All Blick’s dramas, he says, involve someone losing their identity and finding a new one. In The English Lady Cornelia finds herself in the eyes of the beloved Eli and he himself in hers.
“Isn’t that,” Blick asks as we end the interview, “what is love?”
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