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 fiction.
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.
GRADE = A
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