Sharpe’s Rifles – review


Sharpe’s Rifles is the first installment in the BBC’s long-running series of TV movies (there are currently sixteen) based on the books by Bernard Cornwell. I first caught sight of Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe last year, when PBS re-aired the last two movies, Sharpe’s Challenge and Sharpe’s Peril, and given my well documented weakness for historical anything, I decided it was high time I went back to the beginning and watched Sharpe’s Rifles.

The premise: Sharpe is a sergeant in the British army who suddenly gets saddled with a field promotion he didn’t want and finds himself an officer – but not a *real* officer, due to his common birth. Showered by grief from above and below, Sharpe has to take a rag-tag bunch of Riflemen deep into enemy territory on a ridiculous and fairly suicidal mission.

There is definitely a recurring theme to this series – each movie basically revolves around Sharpe getting screwed in some manner, usually by the pomposity or idiocy of a British Lordling of a commander, such that he gets thrust into some dangerous, impossible situation, usually as cannon fodder, and somehow he has to scrap his way to victory, being unrelentingly decent along the way. It’s the classic underdog story, and Sean Bean is the perfect man to embody the downtrodden perserverance of Richard Sharpe. Plus, let’s face it – Sean Bean just wears scruffy well.

And yes, you can tell this movie was filmed in the 90’s – the soundtrack and camera work have that 90’s cheese – but it doesn’t ruin the movie.

With plenty of old school action top to bottom – the Napoleonic Wars means guns AND swords – this series basically boils down to men being MEN. It’s pure testosterone laden fun, but happily it never crosses over into truly offensive territory. I’ll admit I’m a girl who has a pretty low tolerance for chauvinistic condescension – I’m looking at you, old James Bond movies – and this movie did have a few instances of that singularly old school European style of men being patronizing towards women, but it always came from a noble of some sort, and thus blatantly tied back into the general theme of Lords being idiots. Our hero, Sharpe, treats women well – though he does occasionally cross over into fatuous if a woman he cares about is doing something dangerous – and overall it’s just another reason to root for him. So yes, there was a time or two I groaned or threw a spectacular eye roll, but happily it never reached unbearable levels.

All in all this is an enjoyable action movie – slightly dated, but the underdog ethos is timeless, and it comes through loud and clear. It really is fun to root for Richard Sharpe.

Not bad at all for a TV movie that’s over a decade old!

Book Jacket:

It’s 1809, and Napoleon’s army is sweeping across Spain. Lieutenant Richard Sharpe is newly in command of the demoralized, distrustful men of the 95th Rifles. He must lead them to safety-and the only way of escape is a treacherous trek through the enemy-infested mountains of Spain.