"Good with a rifle, quick on his feet, and bloody fearless. His name? Richard Sharpe." So begins the introduction to a grand series of films based on the books of Bernard Cornwall about the son of a whore raised from the ranks after saving Lord Wellington who ends up a Lt. Colonel of riflemen. There are fifteen of these movies and even more novels and they are both a grand pleasure for those who love costume flicks and high adventure. They are also excellent history and deserve their comparison to the nautical stories of Patrick O'Brien.
For my money, the Sharpe series of films are better than the sole cinematic offering we have seen to date of Master and Commander, for all its big budget excesses. Viv and I just gave Netflix a good workout and rented all fifteen movies, 14 of which which were filmed for British television over a five year period (1992-1996) with a reprise nearly nine years later that took Sharpe out of the Napoleonic Wars to India. The star of the series is Sean Bean, which aside from the skill and spirit which he brings to the role makes the Sharpe films excellent date movies. He appears at right in the uniform of an officer in the 95th rifles, a unit of chosen men who served as scouts and skirmishers in Wellington's Peninsula Campaign. In an age of ostentation, the uniform of the rifleman was hunter green and their superior marksmanship and the accuracy of their Baker rifles set the riflemen apart.
Sharpe's company includes memorable characters in the films, with the added benefit of the singing talents of renowned British folksinger John Tam whose renditions of soldiers songs and contemporary ballads add much to his depiction of rifleman Daniel Hagman, a poacher who joins the army rather than go to prison. Sharpe's staunchest friend and ally, Sgt. Major Patrick Harper (played by Daragh O'Malley), is an Irishman who began as his enemy and becomes his greatest friend. Like the best period fiction, these stories are character driven against a rich historical background that animates campaigns and customs which may at first be unfamiliar to those not steeped in the genre but soon become second nature. The series has a loyal following and The Sharpe Appreciation Society does for Bernard Cornwall's character what The One Ring does for Tolkien's fantasy.
Sharpe is a rough and scrappy and as portrayed by Bean speaks in a broad Yorkshire accent (he's a Cockney in the books). Never accepted as a gentleman by the rigid British class system, he is unquestionably a hero. Wellington is a patron who exploits Sharpe's skills and risks his neck on countless occasions, and while he often bridles under incompetent officers he just as often gets his revenge. The women in his life either cheat on him or their love is cheated by death. He usually ends up bruised and battered and looking briefly over his shoulder as his riflemen march "over the hills and far away" to the next battle. I'm sorry to have come to the end of the films, but have 21 novels ahead of me and will probably rent them all again in a few months, unless you beat me to it.