Written by Bernard Cornwell and Russell Lewis
Directed by Tom Clegg
September 1813 – Wellington is chasing Napoleon back through the Pyrenees into France. A final victory seems close at hand, but the French are fighting a fierce rear-guard action and each yard of ground gained is paid for in British blood…
Major Sharpe (Sean Bean) is leading his company of riflemen and they have apparently become lost in the countryside. They find the supply wagons they were supposed to meet attacked; some destroyed, the rest stolen. They track the French thieves to a town where they are raping and pillaging as well as killing babies and children – a part of the “Wolf Brigade”. He slays two of them by firing squad in front of their commander, Brigadier Loup (portrayed by Oliver Cotton), and incurs his wrath.
Upon his return to Wellington’s forces, he is put in charge of the regiment of King’s Guards sent by King Ferdinand of Spain to aid the British in their fight. Wellington doesn’t want any part of these Spanish-Irish troops, and his idea is to drive them out under the guise of “whipping them into shape” and thinks Sharpe is the man to do it.
Of course, Sharpe clashes with the head of the King’s Guards, Colonel Kiley (portrayed by Jason Durr). Kiley is spoiling for a fight but has no practical tactical knowledge. He doesn’t know when to pull back; when they’re out-numbered. His wife (portrayed by Allie Byrne) has followed him into the battle, and it’s a situation Kiley is not comfortable with. There’s also the problem with desertion. Palace guards generally don’t see much action. Once they are thrust into the heat of battle and see it for what it is, many want no part of it.
The story has twists and turns galore. There is infidelity, betrayal, and moments of glory in the face of unprecedented odds. Sharpe loses many of the men we’ve seen throughout the stories until this point. I found myself saying “No!” as the rifle company was shot again and again. It was heartbreaking to see the characters die off like that. And then….
More than any of the other telefilms in this series, I thought Sean Bean carried the story, and quite well. Virtually every scene involves him in one way or another, whether it’s dealing with a thick-headed Wagonmaster General or put in the middle between divided spouses, he carries many of the scenes and holds Sharpe true to the moral code I’ve seen from him all along in this series.
Some of the scenes are predictable, but it doesn’t make it any less heartfelt. This is especially true in the scene where Sharpe attempts to deliver a rousing speech to his new charges before he begins drilling them into shape as soldiers rather than just guards. There’s also the question of loyalties as some of the Palace Guards desert and hate the British because of their Irish heritage. Then there’s the matter of placating Ferdinand so the Spanish stay on the side of the British, all the while fighting the French. There’s also the underlying tone of Roman Catholics versus the Protestants as well. All this tension can be good for the film but also confusing at times as well.
There was less of the camaraderie between Harper (Daragh O’Malley) and Sharpe that’s been one of the strong points of the telefilms before now. However, this doesn’t mean that Sharpe’s second-in-command is any less vital to the story. It just seems as if they are working on separate stories for much of the film rather than working together. However, they come together at the end once again to mourn the loss of their own.
The guest stars do a good job, although I thought there were a bit too many of them in the story and less adventures of the characters I’d been following from film to film. More on the “Chosen Men”, the rifle company that Major Sharpe leads, would have been nice instead of spending so much time on characters that we won’t see again in the series.
The film is still not as clear as I’d like, but that probably goes back to the original medium it was filmed on. I wish a sharper print (no pun intended) had been made for the DVD, but it’s not horrible, just very grainy. Moments, when I paused it during the action, were blurry rather than crisp and clear.
I wouldn’t recommend starting this series of films from this point – see it from the beginning to understand the relationships. There’s no backtracking to explain who everyone is and how they got there, so it can be confusing to pick it up at this point in the series. However, there are some terrific battles, intense rivalries, and good swordplay.
Previous story in the series (link): Sharpe’s Gold
Next story in the series (link): Sharpe’s Sword