Written by Nigel Kneale and Bernard Cornwell
Directed by Tom Clegg
Summer 1813 – Wellington’s Army is driving the French out of Spain. Before they can reach the protection of Napoleon’s Marshal Soult, French wagon trains come under relentless attack.
After a battle where a regiment of red-coats fails to show up where they’re supposed to be, Sharpe (Sean Bean) makes an enemy of the Sergeant, Rodd (Peter Hugo-Daly). When Rodd refuses Sharpe’s orders, he’s branded a deserter and stripped of his rank. Sharpe also starts off on the wrong foot with Lieutenant Ayres (Ian Shaw), who’s one of the Provost’s agents when Sharpe defends one of his chosen men whom the Lieutenant wants to hang. It’s not enough to fight the French, but now he has enemies amongst his own countrymen.
Sharpe and Ayres are sent to exchange rifles with a Spanish resistance fighter in exchange for deserters he’s captured. Sharpe also finds himself drawn to Wellington’s cousin, Ellie (Joyne Ashbourne), who has ventured this far with her mother (Rosaleen Linehan) to look for her father, Will Nugent, who seems to be lost in the mountains. When Wellington (Hugh Fraser) refuses to send them with soldiers to look for Will Nugent, the two Nugent women invite themselves along on Sharpe’s expedition.
It’s Ellie who comes through and saves Ayres’ life in a skirmish with French soldiers. It’s already been established that she’s a crack shot, on par with Sharpe’s chosen men in the rifle company. After taking a young French soldier’s life, she is so distraught after that she turns to Sharpe for comfort. When they retrieve the deserters, Ellie finds evidence that her father was in the area, and the two women secretly take off behind Sharpe’s back.
Now Sharpe must send the Provost back with the deserters as he and his riflemen try to find the women. They stumble upon a French party who is out to root out these Spanish guerillas who fancy themselves descendants of the Aztecs who live in caves amongst the mountains.
From what I understand, although based on events in part of Bernard Cornwell’s novel of the same title, the story here is largely a new one. Unfortunately, it shows. While other installments in the series suffered mostly from a low budget which meant poorer quality film – and thus a poorer transfer – as well as not enough extras to really show a battle on the immense scale you’d expect it to be, Sharpe’s Gold suffers from a lack of believability.
The big problem here is the two women coming through what is essentially a battle-zone that also has its share of rebels, outlaws, and deserters to look for one person. Wellington refuses to send out a search-party and rightly so. He’s at war with Napoleon and shouldn’t risk much-needed lives to look for one person. That these women would be capable enough to get to him without being captured yet vapid enough to really believe he should drop everything he’s doing to send men off on a wild goose chase is mind-boggling.
There are lives lost along the way (I won’t spoil it and say who or how), largely because of this line of thought. While Ellie becomes so distressed over having to kill a French soldier, she doesn’t seem too moved by the fact that some British soldiers are losing their lives or getting injured because of her myopic search for her father.
Another point that really bothered me is that one of Sharpe’s men is executed for stealing a chicken. They aren’t supposed to be plundering as they are trying to get local support, but he does something stupid and steals one chicken which leads to the confrontation between Ayres and Sharpe in the beginning. However, by the end of the story, when the deserters have been brought back to Wellington, he’s willing to forgive their act of desertion just to have more bodies to fight the French with. These deserters did much worse than steal a chicken, and their skills don’t come close to that of the young rifleman. I don’t know whether this part of the story was done on purpose or if it was just bad writing, but it showed complete stupidity on the part of the commanders.
The dialogue is as good as in the earlier tele-films in this series originally aired on British television and now available on DVD. Sharpe has some great lines and watching him forced to apologize to Ayres or face court-martial is a hysterical moment. It shows that despite his lack of noble upbringing, he has a slyness about him that no amount of education could ever hope to instill in a person – you either have it or you don’t. Sean Bean plays him well with such a gruff exterior, but everyone knows there’s a lot more underneath by now, and every now and then it shows through with a certain look or warm smile.
The actors here carry a bad script, and do so in such a way that makes it tolerable. The best thing about the story is watching Sharpe and Ayres together from the beginning of the story until the end. The two men get off to a poor start, but being forced together allows them to slowly gain mutual respect for each other. They both come to realize their initial impressions of the other were wrong, although it’s a bumpy road to get to that point. Ian Shaw holds his own quite well opposite Bean, and gives Ayres a very human quality that he doesn’t come off as a one-dimensional ignorant soldier who needs enlightenment from Sharpe.
By far, this is the weakest entry in the series so far, but still quite watchable. For anyone who’s enjoyed Bean in any other roles, it’s definitely worth a peak at this series (yes, Lori, I mean you).