Written by Charles Wood and Bernard Cornwell
Directed by Tom Clegg
Spain, 1813: After victory at Vitoria, Wellington prepares to invade France. The depleted South Essex face heavy opposition at the French frontier and are forced to retreat.
With the invasion of France imminent and a lack of new recruits available, Major Sharpe (Sean Bean) receives orders to break up his regiment if he can’t find replacements for the men lost. Sharpe is a commoner who’s risen up in the ranks of the British Army despite his lack of pedigree. His Sergeant, Harper (Daragh O’Malley), accompanies Sharpe back to London as a Sergeant Major. They find the barracks where the new recruits of the second battalion are supposed to be housed almost deserted.
Sharpe then has an audience with the Prince Regent (Julian Fellowes) who is somewhat disturbed – okay, he’s a raving lunatic. As he gazes at the French Eagle which Sharpe secured for him in Sharpe’s Eagle, he imagines that he was there in the battle. Sharpe manages to inform him of his plight with regard to the lack of replacements for the Second Battalion. When the Prince questions his Secretary of War, Fenner (Nicholas Farrell), he states that the missing regiment only exists on paper.
Sharpe knows this isn’t true and uses an assassination attempt to stage his and Harper’s deaths. They then sign-on as new recruits to find out what’s really going on.
In addition to this being a change of pace from the usual battles against the enemy on the fields of France and Spain, it shows a very different part of the British military tradition. Rather than showing what joining up was like for Harper and Sharpe in a series of flashbacks, the opportunity to do so is shown here in the guise of solving the mystery as to what’s going on with the newest recruits.
It also puts Sharpe and Harper in a battle of wills against those who are part of the corrupt establishment. With the lack of new recruits available, commanders often resort to underhanded practices to keep their battalions at peak strength. In this case, the recruits were being lured in with tales of the glory of Major Sharpe and the false promises of the opportunity to serve in Spain as he did, only to be sold off to other officers capable of paying off those reaping the rewards of this highly illegal practice.
There are several villains here, including Sharpe’s old nemesis, Sir Henry Simmerson (Michael Cochrane). He has ordered his niece, Jane (Abagail Cruttenden) to wed Colonel Girdwood (Mark Lambert) who is one of the officers training the recruits and part of the corruption. Fenner also has no problems using his position to subjugate Lady Anne (Caroline Langrishe), who is smart enough to watch for her opening to help Sharpe and Jane take him down with the rest of them. All of the villains do a terrific job without going over the top. They are believable as aristocracy who just simply believe that because of their positions they won’t be caught.
Sean Bean did a terrific job here as Sharpe, especially since it is a change of pace. Sharpe has to rely more on his wits and ingenuity here than brute force and honor as he usually does on the battlefield. Bean has Sharpe seemingly more at home on the backstreets of London than he initially was commanding men, something completely in line with the character’s history. It’s a terrific piece of acting.
Daragh O’Malley is the one who really gets to shine here as the Irishman Harper. I hadn’t seen him treated that disparagingly on the battlefield because of his heritage, but here as a new recruit both Girdwood and a brutal Sergeant instantly have it in for him because of his heritage. O’Malley carries himself with indignation below the surface which I could see simmering in his eyes as he had to endure the abuse leveled at him. Watching Harper humiliate the Sergeant in revenge once he can reveal himself to be a Sergeant Major is pure delight.
There is a battle scene at the end as the invasion of France is begun. It’s not up there with many of the other battle scenes in the series, but Sean Bean does an excellent job leading the men into battle. The fervor he exhibits is very obviously contagious and leaves me looking forward to continuing the series as they close in on Napoleon.