I first saw this movie when the
series appeared on PBS in the 1990’s. I
was not familiar with the books and at the time was not interested in reading
any historical fiction. As a history
teacher, I was prejudiced in favor of nonfiction, and I still am. But because of this movie, I delved into
Bernard Cornwell’s series and Richard Sharpe immediately became my favorite
literary character and he still is. The
novel came out in 1988 and was followed five years later by this made-for-TV
movie. It was directed by Tom Clegg (“Bravo Two Zero”). Shooting occurred in the Crimea, Portugal,
and England which was an immediate indication that the producers were sincere
about the quality, although it clearly has a TV budget. In what most would say was a fortuitous development,
the original star, Paul McGann, suffered a torn ACL in a pick-up soccer geame
and was replaced by Sean Bean. The rest
is history as they say. You might notice
that Sharpe’s jacket does not fit well because Bean is a bigger bloke than
McGann who it was fitted for.
The movie is set in 1809
Portugal. Sir Arthur Wellesley is
preparing for an invasion of Spain. The
first words we hear from Sgt. Richard Sharpe are a sardonic “Eyes down” to his
mates as the lordly Wellesley rides by.
Soon after, Sharpe saves Wellesley’s life from a cavalry ambush. Establishing his bona fides as warrior,
Sharpe shoots one, is stabbed, clubs a second, and shoots the third. Wellesley owes his life to this lowly
infantryman. “You did me a damned good
turn, now I’m going to do you a damned bad one.” The bad turn is the battlefield promotion of
Sharpe to Lieutenant. This establishes
the theme of the movie which is that it is hard for a common soldier to become
an officer. Not just hard in getting
there, because a promotion like Sharpe gets would be extremely rare, but
because it would be hard to get respect from the other officers and from the
men. The movie makes clear the class
system that typified the British army.
Not only do the other officers look down on the low-born Sharpe, but the
enlisted men don’t think one of their own could possibly be a good leader.
Wellesley has a mission for his new
lieutenant. He is to find a banker who
is bringing the army’s payroll and escort him to Wellesley. Sharpe is put in command of a unit of
riflemen called the “Chosen Men.” He is
introduced to an intelligence officer named Hogan (Brian Cox) who takes an
interest in the mission. Sharpe goes off
to take command of his riflemen and the theme is further developed as they are
averse to one of their own commanding them.
Sharpe’s character arc begins with him being a martinet as he believes
the only thing these men will understand is force. To hell with the carrot,
here’s the stick. We hear for the first
of many times over the series the term “bastard” as Sharpe’s first command is: “Up,
you lazy bastards!” In particular,
Harper (Daragh O’Malley) is mutinous. A
big Irishman, Harper and Sharpe are bound to butt heads. The rest of the men include Cooper (a thief
before he entered the army), Hagman (a crack shot), Harris (the most intelligent,
but an alcoholic and debtor), and Tongue (an orphan).
On the way to try to locate the
banker, the group hooks up with a unit of Spanish partisans led by a Major Blas
Vivar (Simon Andrev). With them is
Teresa (Assumpta Serna). She is a victim
of French atrocities and vengeance-minded.
The duo is transporting a mysterious chest and they convince Sharpe to
accompany them to the town of Torrecastro.
They are being pursued by a French cavalry unit led by Col. de L’Eclin
and a civilian nobleman. Along the way,
Sharpe’s adversarial relationship with Harper will come to a head and he will
evolve as a leader. Partly through the
influence of Teresa, who he clearly finds intriguing. After hearing another beratement of his men,
she counsels him: “We have two ears and
one mouth. A good leader will listen
twice as much as he shouts.” Sharpe
begins to bond with the men. And gains
their respect to the point where Harper compliments him with: “You’ll make a
grand killing officer…There are two kinds of officers - killing officers and murdering officers. Killing officers are poor old buggers who get
you killed by mistake. Murdering officers
are mad, bad old buggers who get you killed on purpose - for a country, for a
religion. Even for a flag.” The reference to a flag is foreshadowing
because Hogan is going to reappear and add to the mission. Now they have to find the banker and help
foment an uprising based on religion. The
movie delves into the conflict between the scientific bent of the French (and
their collaborators) and the traditional religious beliefs of the Spanish,
exemplified by Bas Vivar. This conflict
will play itself out in violence when the chest makes it to Torrecastro
“Sharpe’s Rifles” got the series off
and running. A total of 16 movies would
be made and this one set the template.
The main characters are developed without a lot of dialogue. They are a laconic lot. The relationship between Sharpe and Harper is
firmly established by the end of the film.
They are classic cinematic buddies.
The series will be populated by interesting side characters and Bas
Vivar and Teresa are the first of many.
Teresa in particular is the rare warrior woman from that time
period. Although fictional, there were
undoubtedly tough females among the Spanish partisans. The evolving romance between her and Sharpe
is mature and not rushed (possibly because the screenwriters knew she would be
a recurring character.) Having her teach
Sharpe how to be a good leader is a nice touch.
She is a far cry from the bodice-wearers that appear in most Napoleonic
The themes were well-chosen and are
efficiently developed. While not based
on a true story, the dueling brothers representing the two views of the future
of Spain is enlightening to an audience that might not be familiar with civil
war nature of the situation in Spain during the Peninsular War. The role religion played is clear from the
movie. It is also strong in depicting
the class divisions within the British army.
And the movie could be seen as a good lesson on command as Sharpe grows
into a leadership role.
The movie’s strength is in the
acting. Bean became a star. He was so convincing in the role that
Cornwell adjusted the character in the books to reflect Bean’s portrayal. O’Malley and Bean have great chemistry from
the beginning. Brian Cox plays the
nefarious Hogan which will be a recurring role.
While not a dialogue driven film, there are many memorable lines. The one weakness is for action fans the combat
is decidedly low-scale. It’s kind of
hard to have a big set piece when Sharpe has only six men. And the movie is
pretty authentic in the single shot nature of the Baker rifles, so firefights
are low on the fire. In spite of this,
Sharpe still manages to kill eight.
Because he’s a proper bastard.
And he can’t be killed, even though he’s played by Sean Bean.
COMPARISON TO THE BOOK:
I am currently rereading through
the series and rewatching the movies to compare them. I was surprised to find that the movie is
very different from the novel. The
screenwriter Eoghan Harris made substantial changes to the book’s plot. Spoiler alert: I will be discussing the book’s plot.
The book begins with Sharpe part of
the disastrous British retreat from Spain.
He is already in the 95th Rifles. He is a quartermaster, having already been
promoted for saving Wellesley’s life in India. Wellesley does not appear in the
book. Sharpe is already suffering from
the prejudices imposed on an officer risen from the ranks. The ambush by the French cavalry appears at
this point in the book. Dunnett is captured
and Murray is mortally wounded. Murray’s
death scene from the book is retained in the movie. The dialogue is similar, but that is rare in
the adaptation. This leaves Sharpe in
command and he has his brutal fight with Harper (which is more vicious than in
the movie) over the disagreement on which route to take to safety. Unlike the small-scale nature of the movie,
Sharpe commands about 50 men in the book.
Blas Vivar intervenes in the fight, but there is no Teresa in the
book! Vivar is more scheming in the book
and he and Sharpe do not get along at all.
Vivar hates the British and is not above lying to Sharpe to get him to
aid in his mission (which is the same as in the book). He does convince Sharpe to come with him and
his mysterious chest. They are being
chased by de L’Eclin and Vivar’s brother.
The dispute between the brothers is the same. Harper
does protect the chest, but Sharpe releases him form arrest because Vivar asks
him to. Sharpe’s evolution as a leader
has more to do with earning respect in battle than from outside advice. And there are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate
his fighting ability. The movie did not
have the budget to recreate the battles from the book. Cornwell has a talent
for Napoleonic combat and even throws (literally) in some caltrops. De L’Eclin is a wily foe, but Sharpe and
Vivar make a good team. There is no
subplot about a banker, but Sharpe does meet some missionaries and has a love
interest in a comely female named Louisa. She is certainly feisty, but not a
warrior like Teresa. The romance is not
predictable and Louisa will not become a recurring character. Sharpe is considerably more love-lorn in the
book. It’s a bit embarrassing, to tell
the truth. The role the banner plays is
similar, but the final payoff is much more complicated and expansive than the
movie could handle.
You have to give credit to Harris
for the adjustments and additions he made to the book. He develops the Chosen Men where the book
does not. Other than Harper, only Hagman
gets any coverage at all in the book. He
opens with Sharpe saving Wellesley’s life which was certainly better than
alluding to an incident in India. We
also get to see Sharpe experiencing the downside to the promotion rather than
have him already morose over it. Adding
Hogan and the banker subplot is seemingly strange because you would think the
book would have more going on than a 100-minute movie, but the movie is able to
handle the banker and the banner well.
But clearly Harris deserves the most credit for introducing Teresa in
the first movie instead of three books later (in the chronology).
Other than the battle scenes, the
movie is better than the book. But since
the battle scenes in the book are so good, I’m going to call it a tie.
BOOK = A