Based on the books by Bernard Cornwell, this is the second in a series of made-for-television movies which aired in the U.K. and on PBS here in the states. The character of Richard Sharpe is a man of common birth who has the luck of catching the eye of Sir Arthur Wellesley after he saves his life during an early battle in the Napoleonic war.
Sharpe’s Eagle is set in Spain in 1809. Napoleon rules Europe with his brother on the Spanish throne as England attempts to take a stand at Talavera, Spain.
Richard Sharpe (Sean Bean) has taken a wound in the leg and is frustrated at having to be in bed for a time rather than out among the fight. Wellesley (David Troughton) decides to send Sharpe off on a mission to destroy a bridge with Sir Henry Simmerson (Michael Cochrane), who is a brutal and possibly inept commander. On his way there, they run into Theresa (Assumpta Serna), a love interest of Sharpe’s introduced in Sharpe’s Rifles, who is still trying to lead a Spanish guerilla resistance.
Simmerson hates Sharpe instantly because of his inferior birth. He finds Sharpe’s advancement and the possibility that someone so common might possibly be named a Captain a personal insult and has two of his officers, one of whom is his nephew, continually taunt and bait Sharpe throughout the film.
The Eagle refers to a French Eagle, the symbol of Napoleonic France at the top of their flagpoles, much like ours here in the States. Major Lennox (David Ashton), who dies in the battle with the French infantry during which the Regimental Colors are also lost, asks Sharpe for one.
Simmerson’s ineptness becomes quite apparent when he marches against a French regiment and loses the English flag, considered quite a disgrace. Apparently, if you lose the flag of the King of England, you are supposed to kill yourself to die with honor. Quite Klingon-ese.
The film is quite good as it shows the rift between the wealthy upper-class and the commoners who did most of their grunt work, as well as most of the dying, for them. Although it doesn’t touch on it, most of those who served in the British Army were not there out of loyalty to King and country, but for the meager pay and the booze. This is why the loss of the Regimental Colors is so devastating – their only true loyalty lies with their regiment. This is the case even for temporary assignments, as is the case with the company of riflemen Sharpe leads.
The character of Harper (Daragh O’Malley) has evolved greatly. In Sharpe’s Rifles, he had quite an antagonistic relationship with Sharpe, but at this point, he is completely loyal to him. The evolution does seem a bit fast, but it is believable seeing the conditions they are living under.
This is where the film hits its mark: the setting and the battle scenes. Although it doesn’t seem to have the numbers one would expect (probably due to budget constraints), the battle scenes are quite well done, giving the feeling of the real grit of a fight, rather than making it all seem romantic. I only wish the quality of the film were a bit better and not as grainy as it appears. This series suffered terribly from lack of a decent budget, and I have to wonder if they’d been filmed after the success of the Horatio Hornblower tele-films on A&E if they would have commanded a more deserving budget.
The acting here is first-rate. Sean Bean is very believable as a sort of fish out of water, who probably didn’t have aspirations to be much more than a rifleman until the opportunity presented itself. Once he had the taste of advancement, he wants more. But there’s another side to Sharpe, one that has quite an admiral sense of right and wrong. Bean makes all these traits in Sharpe quite believable as he follows his head and his heart at various times.
Daragh O’Malley is also excellent as Harper. He is increasingly loyal to Sharpe, but also doesn’t have a problem speaking his mind to him. Whether or not Sharpe will listen is another story. However, the evenness with which O’Malley plays the role makes him easy to believe as an Irishman in the British Army who probably has no other choice but to be there. He is the character most like the soldiers who signed for the pittance and booze, but he has freely given his loyalty over to Sharpe as well. To his credit, Sharpe has also recognized what an asset Harper is.
Michael Cochrane is excellent as the bitter Simmerson. He knows he is incompetent, and seeing someone like Sharpe, whom he detests because of his lack of noble birth, be able to out-think and out-maneuver him in a battle drives him all the more crazy. He doesn’t look at those under him as people, but as pawns to be used in a great game he’s playing. Cochrane doesn’t take the character too far but keeps him treading a line that keeps him in the position he’s risen to because of his birth.
I highly recommend this series, and Sharpe’s Eagle in particular to anyone who likes period pieces, especially those with swashbuckling heroes, who always somehow manage to deliver on a promise made to a dying friend.
Previous episode (link): Sharpe’s Rifles
Next episode (link): Sharpe’s Company