Written by Bernard Cornwell and Eoghan Harris
Directed by Tom Clegg
Someone who read my Horatio Hornblower reviews recommended to me the DVDs in the Sharpe series (original novels by Bernard Cornwell). Since Netflix had them listed for rental, I decided to have a look after becoming intrigued.
It’s 1809 during Napoleon’s reign over the French. His brother sits on the throne of Spain. The English are trying to fight them off and have aligned themselves with Spanish rebels.
The story picks up after the British have taken Oporto. Richard Sharpe (portrayed by Sean Bean) saves the life of General Wellesley (portrayed by David Troughton). Despite the fact that Sharpe is not of noble descent, to show his gratitude Wellesley gives Sharpe a field promotion to Lieutenant. He is then assigned to go with the sharpshooters in search of the banker Rothschild who is carrying a loan note allowing the army to pay its soldiers.
However, the men do not take to Sharpe’s authority. He is one of them, and they are used to having leaders who are of noble birth. They just seem to accept the natural order of things and see themselves – by virtue of their birth – as being lower in the pecking order. Instead of reveling in the fact that one of them has been promoted from the ranks, they reject the notion.
Sharpe also cannot tell them the true nature of their mission. When the leader of the mission is slain, Sharpe must carry on with the mission. The men do not wish to follow him, and he is not a natural leader. He is continually fighting with them, in particular, an Irishman named Harper (portrayed by Daragh O’Malley).
Sharpe’s theory of leadership seems to be to bark orders and sound as rude and obnoxious as possible. This does nothing to create any allegiance to him on the part of the men under him. Fortunately, they run into a group of Spanish resistance fighters who are carrying a mysterious box. The two forces join together to get to where they are going. The question is, though, just who is escorting who to Torrecastro?
This provides Sharpe with an opportunity to learn a bit about leadership. A woman leader of the resistance by the name of Teresa (portrayed by Assumpta Serna) gives him some important advice. You have one mouth but two ears – listening to your men is more important.
Will Harper – accused of mutiny – turn on his own countrymen? Will Sharpe earn the trust and respect of the men under him? What are the contents of the mysterious box? Will they find the loan note so the army can be paid?
While this series and the Horatio Hornblower one take place at the same time, they are different, and not just because Sharpe is in the Army while Hornblower is in the Navy. Both are men of ordinary birth who will rise in the ranks to go far beyond that which is normally seen to those of common background. However, where Hornblower is a seemingly natural leader and one who can inspire his men and gain their loyalty quite easily, Sharpe is more of an ordinary man who catches a lucky break by saving the General and now must learn what is seemingly instinct for others. There is more focus placed here on the fact that Sharpe is not of noble descent – it seems to be brought up at every opportunity.
The acting in Sharpe’s Rifles is good. Bean seems perfect as Sharpe, uncomfortable and ill-suited for the command and trust placed in his hands. He gives Sharpe fierce energy and determination, yet he is obviously floundering when thrust into this position. O’Malley is great as the Irish Harper, also out of place in this army and unwilling to look at Sharpe as a leader. He portrays the role with a quiet assurance that Sharpe will eventually fail and get them all killed. His aversion to having an ordinary man command him seems natural to him, even if the ideas seem alien to me by the standards of our time period.
By far one of the shining moments of the movie is any moment that Teresa is in. Serna gives her an edge, but a soft side as well. She brings to life a woman who was used to a comfortable life, only to have it destroyed at the hands of the French. She is by far a better leader than Sharpe is, but she sees something in him that gives her reason to want to help him. I was happy to see that Serna portrays this character in at least three other films in this series.
If there’s one complaint I have it’s the picture quality and sound quality. From DVDs, I just expect more. This looks like a poor quality of film transferred to DVD without any of the digital restoration usually seen when such a transfer takes place. The sound was muddied at times as well, making me have the volume up rather loud to make up for poor sound as well as accents that are sometimes hard for Americans to understand.
If you like period pieces and enjoyed the Horatio Hornblower series on A & E television or on DVD, you’ll like this. Bean isn’t quite as easy on the eyes as Ioan Gruffudd is, and the cinematography isn’t quite as good as that series, but it’s still a good story and well-acted.
Next episode in series (link): Sharpe’s Eagle