So on Mother’s Day I asked my Mum if she had any particular requests. Unfortunately neither of us could think of any. Predictably enough, it finally hits me two weeks after the fact.
When I was in high school, the Lord of the Rings movies were just coming out, and the actors in it became household names. One who has rather stayed that way, and for whom, it must be said, my Mum’s a bit of a fangirl, was Sean Bean, as Boromir.
Sean Bean was probably one of the better-known actors before being in Lord of the Rings – in particular as a Bond villain – and as his past works and ones subsequent to the Fellowship of the Ring became well known, up to and including his recent stint as first blood on Game of Thrones, a running joke has emerged about him…
No matter the movie, no matter the story, no matter the character, Sean Bean always dies.
Seriously, running the numbers, Bean must hold some kind of record for most character deaths of any one actor ever. From Alec Trevelyan to Ned Stark, he’s famous for his various demises.
In defence of the poor guy, I would like therefore to tell everyone about the discovery that Mum and I made in seeking other Bean productions following Rings. And there’s one role Bean’s held down over the years that nobody seems to remember and yet distinguished itself for being virtually the only role in which he gets to live.
His name: Richard Sharpe.
Based on Bernard Cornwell’s famous series of historical novels, Sharpe is the series following the career of Richard Sharpe in the army of the Duke of Wellington as he wages the war in Portugal, Spain and France against Napoleon. Sharpe himself is a low-class, parentless soldier who saves Wellington’s life from a French ambush, and as a reward Wellington makes him an officer in his army.
Bear in mind, this was a time when officer’s commissions were bought and sold and were exclusive to the monied ‘gentlemen’ of the upper classes. For a bottom-of-the-barrel commoner like Sharpe to be made an officer was all but a scandal.
Sharpe is placed at the head of an elite group of ‘Chosen Men’ of the Rifles – still a fledgling corps of an army using muskets, wearing green jackets instead of the traditional British red. These sharpshooters become mixed up in political disputes, covert missions, and major battles of the Peninsular War. Sharpe himself lives day to day, finding love and victory in the face of the brutality of war and the injustice of class society.
It isn’t a TV show in the usual sense, more a long succession of made-for-TV movies. But otherwise the structure is similar. In the same tradition of Horatio Hornblower, Sharpe’s adventures coincide with many events of the Napoleonic Wars, but he and his Chosen Men are usually someplace away from the main theatre. Cornwell does seem more willing to put his character in the thick of the action, however, as in the case of Sharpe’s Waterloo, but even so he’s only ever a commander of one company or battalion at most in armies tens of thousands strong.
The production has occurred over many years and, especially early on, the production values are noticeably low-budget. The image in the early movies is grainy as heck, and the scope of the shots is quite small. In Sharpe’s Eagle, which includes the Battle of Talavera, the scale of the battle is only suggested by some dialogue and distant cannon-shots. Historically there were almost 100,000 soldiers at Talavera. I think at any given shot of Sharpe’s Eagle, you see about two or three dozen.
Sharpe himself is a typical Cornwellian hero: rough, tough, with a romantic soul and a James Bond-level libido. He occasionally ‘gets’ the girl even when it doesn’t make any sense, as in Sharpe’s Enemy when he apparently has a quickie with an old flame during an imminent crisis behind enemy lines, and when he is, besides, happily married.
The original Sharpe books actually don’t begin in Portugal, but in India, where Wellington (and, by extension, Sharpe) made his career, and he’s present at Trafalgar, the Siege of Copenhagen and other historical incidents before the Peninsular Wars. The shows occur almost entirely in the Peninsular Wars, and it certainly makes the story a lot tighter. But recently they’ve adapted some of the India-set episodes, happening after the Peninsular Wars, and the logical manglings required to make this work are a bit of a headache.
Fundamentally, though, I don’t know why they continued after Waterloo. Indeed, it’s easy to tell, if only from Daragh O’Malley’s receding hairline, that nearly a decade passed between the production of Waterloo and Challenge. Getting to the ultimate clash of the Napoleonic Wars was really the only reasonable conclusion for the series. The Sharpe movies were never a tight story arc. Indeed, given his successive marriages, repeated framings for one offence or another, and other such crises, it really does look like a soap opera in its entirety.
Despite that, the TV movies have a distinctive charm. The cast, Sean Bean leading along with David Troughton, Hugh Fraser, Daragh O’Malley, folk singer John Tams, Assumpta Serna, Pete Postlethwaite, Brian Cox and even, in Sharpe’s Eagle, a young Daniel Craig to name a few, is top-notch.
The characters are lots of fun. The cunning and hot-tempered Wellington, the wisecracking Sergeant Harper, Spanish Lady of War Teresa, fiddle-playing Private Hagman, the lighthearted spymaster Hogan, the devious and vengeful Major Ducos and the depraved Sergeant Hakeswill are among my favourites. The action and dialogue are exciting while not overlooking the cost of warfare – besides which it can be a little chilling as we follow the riflemen – underdogs in that era but the shape of things to come.
It’s well worth checking out, if you like a historical adventure, featuring a still-alive Sean Bean, no less! Indeed, any time another character says Sharpe is “a dead man,” it’s them who invariably die. And it’s worth it if you want to see that it’s possible for an electric guitar to be integrated into a period piece soundtrack…
“You really believe men will fight and die for a rag on a pole, sir?”
“You do, Richard. You do.”
– Sharpe’s Rifles