Bernard Cornwell started writing a series of historical novels detailing the Napoleonic times from the perspective of a young British soldier, Richard Sharpe. Immensely popular historical fiction, the series has 24 novels, many of which were turned into British TV movies, starting with 1993's Sharpe's Rifles.
It's 1809 in Portugal and Sir Wellesley (David Troughton) -- later the Duke of Wellington -- is preparing an attack on Napoleon Bonaparte's forces. Among his forces is Sgt. Richard Sharpe (Sean Bean), a young soldier who saves Wellesley from a French cavalry patrol. Young Sharpe is quickly promoted for his heroic acts and is given a dangerous behind the lines mission. He is assigned as an officer to a rifle company that must travel deep into French territory to accomplish the mission. Knowing he's a common soldier promoted to an officer, his men are instantly suspicious of him, making an already dangerous mission that much worse.
The first of 16 such Sharpe novels, 'Rifles' is a great intro to the character and the historical time. From director Tom Clegg, it is a TV-movie so know that going in. It clocks in at just 101 minutes -- never overstaying its welcome. Don't go in expecting a massive historical epic. Instead, we get a smaller scale story that remains on a successful personal level. The focus is on a handful of characters in a much bigger situation -- the Battle of Corunna -- and doesn't try to be an end-all, be-all story. It was filmed in the Ukraine and Portugal and has a very unique, washed-out look, but in a good way. The only real oddity is the musical score from Dominic Muldowney and John Tams, a unique mix of period appropriate military music and an out of place use of electric guitars at times.
Whether its the Napoleonic setting or the smaller budget for the TV movie, something appealed to me about this first Sharpe movie. The closest description I can come up with is nostalgia. It feels old-fashioned, like a movie that would have been released in the 1940s in the vein of Beau Geste or Gunga Din (albeit significantly darker in tone and subject matter). There are easily identified villains you just love to hate, the roguish, tough anti-hero who you know is genuinely good, the woman with the tortured past, the brutish sidekick who starts off as a bad guy. Stock characters, stock storylines, but all for the better in a weird way. There's a reason these things are stock anything. If used correctly, it's going to be a solid, well-told story.
Working in films and on TV since the 1980s, this was Sean Bean's first real starring role, and he doesn't disappoint. His Richard Sharpe is a commoner who came from a checkered past. In other words, he ain't a gentleman, and as an officer that's exactly what he's expected to be. Mostly though, he's tough, stubborn, very capable and wants to be a good soldier even when his men below him have no respect for him. A great hero for a potential-filled series. The always mischievous, always up to something Brian Cox plays Hogan, Sharpe's superior who tags along on the mission. Assumpta Serna plays Theresa, the Spanish guerrilla fighter working with the British, with Simon Andreu playing Vivar, a similarly mysterious guerrilla with a deep-seeded hatred of the French.
Going ahead with the series, I'm most encouraged by Sharpe's motley crew of sharpshooters. Yes, the men on a mission angle. Start with Daragh O'Malley (can you tell he's an Irishman?) as Harper, the boozing, brawling Irish soldier who butts heads instantly with Sharpe. If you've seen any movie ever with a hero and a sidekick, there's no surprise that Sharpe and Harper will eventually become allies and good friends. O'Malley and Bean are the perfect casting to play off each other. The rest of Sharpe's men include Cooper (Michael Mears), Harris (Jason Salkey), Tongue (Paul Trussell), and Perkins (Lyndon Davies). None other than O'Malley's Harper are developed much, but there's potential so hopefully that develops over the coming TV movies.
And now for the fun stuff, the action. Like the scale in general, we're not talking a War and Peace epic with 10,000 extras. The battles are usually between small groups of soldiers, but the lack of scale doesn't hurt anything. The camera is there at ground level with the troops, making it a little more uncomfortable to watch. The highlight is the finale; Sharpe, his men and the Spanish guerrillas trying to take a heavily guarded chapel. Surprisingly good action in a very solid opener. Definitely looking forward to where the series goes.
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