Based on the historical fiction novels by Bernard Cornwell of Richard Sharpe, a Rifleman during the Napoleonic War, the TV series Sharpe aired from 1993-1997, with two additional stories airing in 2006 and 2008. With each episode clocking in at 100 minutes, this TV series produced 16 feature lengths films throughout it’s run. Sean Bean and Daragh O’Malley starred in all 16 features, with Tom Clegg directing the entire series. 30 years after the series debut, historical fiction series have exploded in recent years, but Sharpe continues to hold up all these years later. Here all 16 are ranked from weakest to overall best.
16 – Sharpe’s Gold (1995)
It seems no matter how great any series is, there’s always one obvious snoozer. For this series that snoozer is Sharpe’s Gold. I would assume the majority of fans rank this at the bottom, as does most of the cast and crew from what I understand. It was the first time an original script was used instead of the novel for source material, although the title of Sharp’s Gold and one or two very minor elements are kept. I don’t feel the problems come from using an original story, as many of the later ones were original creations of the writers. The main issue is the original story here is just not that interesting, and comes across as over the top and cheesy at times. Hugh Fraser is always a joy to watch as Wellington, but his expanded role is not necessarily a good thing. You lose some of the authority his character has when he’s suddenly playing out mediocre family drama. Ellie Nugent has more screen time than most female leads, and yet she’s still rather bland and unimpressive. There is one saving grace in an hour and 40 minutes, and that’s the shooting contest between Sharpe and Ellie. After a decent and intriguing opening where Sharpe encounters a group of soldiers who turn looters/deserters, it takes 40 minutes to bring it back to the deserters, with an opportunity to exchange weapons to recapture them. Then after the exchange and a brief scene with Wellington addressing them, the story never comes back. In all fairness, the series had already dealt with battling deserters only 2 stories prior to this, so there’s no sense in retreading that. In the end we get a cheesy climax with Aztec gold hidden in the Spanish hills, Ellie’s father being held prisoner, and a ritualistic human sacrifice. The caves look artificial, the stakes are so low since you couldn’t care less about the characters or gold, and the big action comes complete with the worst kind of 90s slow motion.
15 – Sharpe’s Revenge (1997)
While Sharpe’s Gold can basically be skipped without missing anything major, Sharpe’s Revenge might be one of the most essential viewings of the entire series. I might even go so far as to say it is the most essential, as the direction the Sharpe and Jane story takes here plays out in multiple story arcs over the next two stories that follow. Sadly it fails on a lot of levels. The story starts with the final official battle of the war, and Sharpe’s promise to his wife Jane that he will be done with fighting. Through a very loosely broken promise, misunderstandings and outside manipulation, Jane leaves Sharpe at the encouragement of her friend. Then it gets even more convoluted as Sharpe is framed for murder and theft. Everything in Sharpe’s Revenge feels far fetched and far too convenient. Ducos’ framing of Sharpe is so poorly conceived that there should be no way it leads any further than a quick Q&A session, and when it goes as far as a conviction and potential execution, its near impossible to take the story seriously. Lady Molly’s manipulation of Jane as well is just poorly setup. The goal is to have shared access to Sharpe’s fortune, but its far too convenient that this master plan comes to her instantaneously because she happens to see a hand written power of attorney letter from across the room. The setup of Jane and Lord Rossendale is even more convenient for story’s sake, and all scenes that follow play out like bad soap opera. This is all similar to the book, but Cornwell had the freedom to sell this plot over hundreds of pages, and not a handful of scenes in 100 minutes. For a story this size I almost wish they had split it up over2 films as opposed to cramming it all into one. When you consider the story that follows this was 100% original, that wouldn’t have been too hard to pull off. Where this episode makes up for the shortcomings is with Captain Fredrickson, a recurring minor character who gets hugely elevated to a star, as he and Sharpe hide out in the home of a French widow. The development of Lucille is handled almost perfectly, as is the tension between her, Fredrickson and Sharpe. The only thing you lose from the novel is a minor change to how this story is resolved between them, which to be fair would have been a lot harder to sell an audience on in 1997, especially when the rest of Revenge is such a downer already. Even the climax, with Sharpe narrowly escaping with his life just doesn’t work in this adaptation. Like so much else in Sharpe’s Revenge, the book was intended to be left more unresolved than TV audiences in 1997 would have accepted. I can’t excuse the poorly executed fate of Ducos, the longest running villain in the series. This story was just so loaded that there wasn’t time to properly execute everything. Ultimately the plot just feels too flimsy and unbelievable, and often unpleasant to watch. Even as the second lowest ranked on this list, it’s still far better than Sharpe’s Gold.
14 – Sharpe’s Challenge (2006)
Nine years after the TV series concluded, Sean Bean returned for Sharpe’s Challenge, partially based on a series of prequel novels Cornwell had written that took place in India. The time period is adjusted to take place 2 years after the end of the original series, with Sharpe called out of retirement due to his previous experience in India. The change in setting to India adds a lot to the story, not just visually, but in showing Sharpe having to navigate a different set of rules and culture than he’s used to. In 2006 it was so exciting to see Sean Bean and Daragh O’Malley back that much of the other cast members just felt like background players. As the years have past I’ve grown to appreciate the supporting cast so much more. Toby Stephens as Dodd especially stands out as a perfect villain. He’s such a natural at playing obnoxious and arrogant. It’s also great to see a fellow Bond villain squaring off against Sean Bean. The best scene comes at the half way point as Sharpe and Harper are pitted against each other by Dodd, and Sharpe forced to fire his rifle at Harper in an execution. Sean Bean has some of his best emotional acting here, even though only a few words are spoken. The story itself does feel a little pieced together at times. Simmerson’s return is tacked on, and Harper’s “rescue” could have been dragged out a lot longer. The politics inside the Indian fortress is the most interesting part of this story. This and Sharpe’s Peril aired as 2 parters, unlike the rest of the series, but it’s the edited feature that’s most widely available now. Having not seen the much longer 2 parter since the original airing, I can only guess at whether the edited versions or better or worse. I do remember enjoying Sharpe’s Challenge in the mini series format, but now seeing the edited feature, it comes across as choppy and rushed. The story in Challenge does lack at times, but the spectacle is there. This is one story that could have played on the big screen.
13 – Sharpe’s Battle (1995)
The premise is simple, with Sharpe given the task of training up an unimpressive regiment of Irish soldiers that the higher ups would more or less rather see disappear. Sharpe becomes conflicted, as he grows to like the soldiers, and goes to great lengths to whip them into shape. Seeing Sean Bean aggressively take command is always a highlight, as he’s usually presented as a more relatable officer. In a change of pace, the fellow soldiers, led by Lord Kiely, are portrayed more naive than lazy or foolish. Sharpe even gets stuck in the middle of Kiely’s love triangle, which is also a welcome change in pace, as it gives Bean the opportunity to play more of a mentor or caring big brother role. Daragh O’Malley as Harper also gets a little more to do than just act as 2nd in command. He not only assumes command for part of the story, but the relationship between him and Perkins provides him with some of the emotional weight that is usually reserved for Sharpe. By no means is Sharpe himself reduced in screen time in Battle. He acts more as a supporter in other character’s arcs without losing any screen time or screen presence. So many stories have buffoonish or just plain arrogant villains, which is always enjoyable, but I consider it a treat when you get a true menacing villain. It’s even more of a bonus here when the menacing villain has one eye. Despite much of the typical drama being changed up, I would say if there’s one problem with Sharpe’s Battle it would be how cookie cutter the plot is. It checks all the boxes of a halfway decent Sharpe story without making anything particularly spectacular. While I always enjoy watching it, if enough time passes I will always struggle to remember which one Sharpe’s Battle is. It’s the “Which one was that, again?” of the Sharpe series.
12 – Sharpe’s Siege (1996)
The story of Siege is the beginning of the invasion of France. A french agent, The Compte de Marquerre, meets with Wellington and offers to switch sides and help incite a rebellion in France to overthrow Napoleon. Most of the suspense of the story is centred around the lack of trust of The Compte, with the audience never really sure if he’s to be trusted or not. Sharpe’s personal story revolves around his wedding to Jane, who was introduced in the previous story. Sean Bean and Abigail Cruttenden have unbelievable chemistry, obviously assisted by the fact they got married in real life prior to filming this. Early on there’s a hilarious villain intro, as Sharpe is out with his soon to be wife for dinner, and the arrogant British officer of the week, Bampfylde, is being obnoxious and rude. Sharpe confronts him as politely as Sharpe can possibly be, and Bampfylde challenges Sharpe to a duel. The fellow officers present hilariously play along by slowly dropping hints at Sharpe’s exploits, to which Bampfylde cowers and politely backs down. Another standout scene involves a plan for Sharpe and his men to bluff their way into the castle, which requires Harper to have to pull out one of his own teeth. Tom Clegg has a talent for towing the line between different tones, and the tooth extraction scene is both horrifying and hilarious at the same time. The side plot of Jane and Major Ross catching a life threatening fever is one of the drawbacks to Siege. While there are good moments to this plot, such as Sharpe having to leave his sick wife behind, or soldiers dropping during a march, but as it continues to play out it lacks connection to the rest of the story. At times Siege is like two separate episodes scotch taped together, and the longer it goes the more far fetched it gets. Sharpe comes across a convenient miracle cure for the fever, and has to choose whether to give it to a dying french woman or save it for his wife. This is further complicated by fact that the massive amount of doses Sharpe obtains clearly would have allowed him to do both. Another scene with the Comte’s sister propositioning Sharpe after saving her mother is obviously meant to tease the audience about whether or not Sharpe would cheat on his new wife. Based on previous stories I can understand the callback, but it’s the wrong episode to use this in. The fact that Sharpe responds in such a humorous way is entertaining, but again feels out of place considering how dramatic the personal story of Sharpe is meant to be in Siege. As much as I love The Compte’s character and the well played tease of his loyalty, I feel the reveal of his true loyalties is revealed too soon. I would have loved for this to be dragged out even longer. Revealing this as Sharpe finally gains access to the castle and is told by the injured soldier would have been the ideal spot for the reveal. Siege has some iconic scenes, and some of Tom Clegg’s best work as Director, but there’s too much of the story that doesn’t work on the same level.
11 – Sharpe’s Peril (2008)
The second of the India stories, and the final Sean Bean Sharpe story to date, Sharpe’s Peril tells a story written directly for the screen, as opposed to using the India prequel novels as inspiration as Challenge did 2 years earlier. While Challenge had the size and scale of a big screen movie, it was maybe too much for 100 minutes. What I appreciate about Peril is they took a step back and focused on a much simpler story, making it play better as a standalone episode like the earlier TV series. Picking up almost immediately after the conclusion of Challenge, Sharpe and Harper act as escorts to a party of soldiers and civilians across the country. Two of the characters they encounter have direct ties to Sharpe’s past. Henry Simmerson, who had just appeared in Sharpe’s Challenge, makes his 5th overall appearance in the series. Even though at times I feel Simmerson’s character is forced into stories where he doesn’t fully fit, there is nothing more enjoyable than watching Michael Cochrane play him. While his presence in Challenge was questionable, I give it a free pass as it leads directly into his role here in Peril, arguably one of his best in the series. The other character with a connection to Sharpe is Barrabbas Hakeswill, son of the most iconic Sharpe villain of all time. Instead of going the predictable route of having Barrabbas be identical to his father, and Sharpe as the only character who seems to be smartened up, they go the opposite route, showing Sharpe taking out his anger of the father towards the son. I don’t know whether anyone intended for Peril to be the final Sharpe episode, but the inclusion and conclusion of these characters works perfectly as a way to wrap up the series. The villain and female lead are somewhat bland characters on the surface, but improved greatly by the actor’s performances. The final battle feels just as cinematic as the one in Challenge. The increased budget helps, as does the ability to increase the violence and not be so TV censored. While Sharpe’s Peril doesn’t necessarily offer anything new to Sharpe’s character, or fully utilize the environment the way Challenge did, the story is solid, and Sharpe having to overcome his own judgments and prejudices of so many characters feels like a fitting wrap up to the series.
10 – Sharpe’s Justice (1997)
Entering the 3rd season of Sharpe, there were only 2 books left to adapt, so Sharpe’s Justice was written as an original story to bridge between Revenge and the finale Waterloo. The war actually ended at the beginning of the previous story, so Sharpe’s Justice is able to explore something not touched on in Cornwell’s novels, which is what soldiers had to do after coming home. In Sharpe’s case, he’s forced into service in his hometown of Yorkshire, a behind the scenes scheme of Lord Rossendale and Sharpe’s ex Jane to try and keep him from getting even after the events of Revenge. Once home we get a lot of Sharpe’s personal backstory revealed, which primarily revolves around Matthew Truman, a childhood friend of Sharpe’s from his day at the orphanage. Truman becomes the target of fellow British officers as he leads protests in favour of the poor and homeless soldiers. Through exploring this story we also get a long overdue arc for Hagman, one of the original Rifleman. A lot of Sharpe’s backstory is explored, which is not essential to the overall story, but it gives the audience a different perspective on Sharpe as a character. The other major plot involves Jane and Rossendale and Sharpe’s feud with them. What Justice does best is develop the triangle between these three characters even further, giving the audience a bit of Jane and Rossendale’s perspective, which sadly was lost a lot in Revenge. You don’t walk away from it empathizing or agreeing with their actions, but more so understanding their point of view. The final scene in Justice between Sharpe and Jane is one of the best acted moments in the entire series. Sharpe’s Justice is the best kind of a filler story, one that presents a different scenario than we’ve seen before, gives depth and complexity to all the major and supporting characters, and works as a bridge between two pivotal stories at the end of the series.
9 – Sharpe’s Mission (1996)
One of the handful of stories not based on a Bernard Cornwell book. This feature has one of the best opening sequence of any in the series. Flashing back 3 years earlier as villainous British officer Brand kills his own men and sets himself up to look like the hero, with Sharpe surviving and having no knowledge of what Brand had done. One of the things that really makes Major Brand such a great villain is the performance, played by pre-fame Mark Strong. This type of character is often played more conniving and cowardly, but Strong brings an intimidating confidence to the character. Another bonus is that unlike other stories, even Sharpe is taken in and fooled by Brand, and spends a good chunk of the early scenes in awe of him. The audience is in on the secret of Brand long before the other characters are, and the suspicions Sharpe has are slowly revealed, making the tension last. Another standout character is Major Pyecroft, a demolitions expert with the memorable appearance of a full hood and mask, used to cover the fact that he blew off most of his face in an explosion earlier in the war. The climax avoids the repetition of being just another battle heavy episode, as the main focus is on the discovery of Brand’s betrayal and his spur of the moment court martial. Sharpe plays a bit of Sherlock Holmes, revealing all the evidence against Brand in one of the best scenes of the episode. There is a forgettable side plot involving Sharpe’s wife Jane and a con man posing as a poet attempting to seduce her. This would be a complete throwaway story if it weren’t for what it adds to Jane’s arc in future stories. Sharpe’s Mission is one of the better original stories, that manages to maintain Cornwell’s style and narrative. It’s an entertaining one off adventure story that offers a few surprises for even the most die hard fans.
8 – Sharpe’s Rifles (1993)
The first story ever filmed and aired, I first saw Rifles after having seen at least half a dozen other stories. It plays more as a stand alone origin story, which I would come to learn was the way Cornwell wrote it as well. Cornwell had written 8 books prior to Rifles, often alluding towards moments that actually are told in Rifles. The story was always meant to go back and show the beginnings of the character. Sharpe suddenly thrown into a leadership role, meeting Harper, the Riflemen, not to mention Teresa the Spanish Guerrilla and his future wife. It’s no knock to say that the book did something better, but the greatest compliment is when something is done better on screen than in novel. Moving up Sharpe’s meeting of Teresa here to Rifles was 100% the right choice, and the development of their relationship is so perfectly handled. I often wonder whether I would like this film more or less if it were the first I had ever seen. It makes total sense to film this first, so the audience can see and hear the backstories for Sharpe and everyone else. More screen time is given to the minor supporting Rifleman such as Hagman, Cooper, Harris than in any other story. At the same time there is something fun about knowing the characters in all the other stories, and then going back to see how terrible Sharpe was as a leader in this origin. He and Harper actually get into a fist fight on their first meeting, which is maybe the most memorable scene of the episode. Sharpe essentially acts the part of an officer, barking orders, condescending and belittling his men the way all the best superior officers/ villains do for the rest of the series. The most important scene comes when Sharpe’s superior Captain Murray dies, giving Sharpe important advice that will influence the character for the rest of the series. The plot is one of the more forgettable ones, which is fine if you view this as an just an origin. Outside of Sean Bean and Daragh O’Malley giving it their all, Brian Cox is the real star as Hogan, a character that would only appear 1 other time. He’s such a unique blend of arrogant weasel and charming mentor, and Brian Cox gives him even more personality than could ever have been on the page. As the first episode/film, the polish obviously wasn’t all there yet, which also has a unique charm to it. Of 16 features, this is the one that definitely looks the most like a TV episode than a film. Tom Clegg would perfect the cinematic on a budget strategy throughout the series, but even here on his first he pulls off the near impossible with TV action. While Rifles would be blown away by the next handful of stories, it provides for some of the most entertaining interactions between the characters that would be around for so many years to come.
7 – Sharpe’s Sword (1995)
Every time I watch Sharpe’s Sword I go through the same process. I remember loving it, watch the first half and question whether this is as good as I remember, and then get completely caught off guard and blown away by the 2nd half. The first half is a paint by numbers Sharpe story. You have spies, a French villain of the week, conflict between Sharpe and his fellow officers, and a female lead of the week to throw in a bit of a love story. Right around the half way point the story takes a more unexpected turn, with a battle going south and Sharpe ending up injured and nearly on his death bed for a good chunk of the 2nd half. Once Sharpe is injured it gives the large number of characters a chance to develop further. It’s not often Sharpe is absent for long in these stories, which might make it even harder for the audience to care about side characters, but Tom Clegg directs this movie like his life depended on it. Everyone knows Sharpe is going to recover, but the sombre tone really adds a lot. The supporting cast are all at the top of their game, with James Purefoy especially making an impression. The first time I ever watched Purefoy here I felt like I was watching a future Oscar winner (still crossing my fingers he’ll get there). John Kavanagh also steals scenes as Father Curtis, who gets his own satisfying showdown with returning villain Henry Simmerson. For a series so centred around one character such as Sharpe to spend so much time showing fights and giving closure to one off characters is unusual, and even more unusual that’s it’s pulled off so effectively. The female lead Lass is the only weak link in the story, mostly due to the silliness of a nun spontaneously turned mute through trauma. The idea isn’t that bad, but its hard for any actor to convey such wild emotions through just facial expression, so she sometimes looks a little silly. But to be fair even she has some outstanding moments later on, particularly her scene where she’s cornered by Simmerson. As I started by saying, Sword starts as a stock standard story before quickly evolving into something unique and special for the series. Not to intentional use a cliche phrase, but this is one of the “must see” Sharpe stories. If anyone watches the earlier films and doesn’t take to the historical military style, Sword might be the one with enough overall variety and dramatic weight to win them over.
6 – Sharpe’s Enemy (1994)
For years I always considered Sharpe’s Enemy to be my favourite in the series. It’s the closest any story comes to being a direct sequel. The villain and events from Sharpe’s Company directly lead to what happens in Enemy. Being as objective as I can be years later, I do look at Enemy as being a great story with a spectacularly epic final act. The first 2 acts play out like a typical Sharpe adventure. He’s given the task of paying a ransom after the kidnapping of a superior officer’s wife. The superior officer as expected is not brave enough to lead the mission himself. What Sharpe doesn’t know until he arrives is the small band of deserters heading up the kidnapping is lead by Obadiah Hakeswill, who was the main villain in the previous story, and had even more history in Sharpe’s backstory that would eventually be told in the novel Sharpe’s Tiger. The story shifts back and forth between moments of humour and very dramatic subject matter, such as Colonel Farthingdale’s paranoia that Sharpe will sleep with his wife after rescuing her, only for Sharpe to discover his wife is a woman he already has a history with. There’s also a unique twist as Sharpe has to deal with politics, and briefly work with a French officer who’s wife has also been kidnapped. The real appeal Enemy story has going for it is the rivalry between Sharpe and Hakeswill, who is played absolutely brilliantly by Pete Postlethwaite. While in his first appearance there are moments where you almost pity Hakeswill, Pete Postlethwaite commits so much to being the ultimate villain that you actually get impatient waiting for him to die. I did say that the first 2 acts were more of a typical Sharpe adventure, which may have been intentional to surprise the audience with how dramatic the final act is. For the first time in the series it becomes a personal story for Sharpe, and Sean Bean’s performance in the last 2 or 3 scenes can’t be beat. My only real complaint is that Hakeswill was so good as a villain that he almost deserved one more story. The bar was set so high by Pete Postlethwaite that nobody could ever come close to topping him.
5 – Sharpe’s Honour (1994)
I would consider Sharpe’s Honour to be the first significant departure from the Sharpe formula. Instead of focusing on a military mission, battle, or corrupt officers, this is a period spy story. Ducos, a minor villain in Sharpe’s Enemy, uses Sharpe to divide the British and Spanish. Sharpe is setup to take the fall for assaulting a Marquesa. To try and save their alliance with the Spanish, Wellington is forced to have Sharpe executed. His death is obviously faked, and Sharpe and Harper spend the majority of the story trying to find the Marquesa and prove his innocence. Following the events in Sharpe’s Enemy, everything about this feature would have been tough to pull off. Taking a bit of a departure was exactly the way to make it work. The Marquesa is one of of the best female leads in the series history. I’d go as far as to say she’s one of the best guest stars overall in the series, and that includes all villains, allies, etc. Alice Krige gives the character even more life than it should be possible to achieve based solely on the script. At no point can you ever really tell if she can be trusted or not. The most memorable section of Honour are the scenes with Sharpe and Harper travelling with The Marquesa in captivity. It’s these scenes that so perfectly demonstrate why the character works so well. On the surface you should know she shouldn’t be trusted, but in the performance you desperately want to trust her. While I personally think the change in story and tone from Enemy is exactly what was needed as a follow up, I can imagine some viewers would demand a more ambitious continuation after the Company/Enemy back to back. Even for those who believe this isn’t big enough to follow Enemy, I’d encourage them to watch it as a stand alone and try and find even one minute that’s not a blast to watch. If that’s not enough, then let me sell Sharpe’s Honour by saying one more thing. Sean Bean fights off a group of nuns with an uncooked chicken. Fights off nuns with an uncooked chicken.
4 – Sharpe’s Eagle (1993)
This, the 2nd story produced was based on the 1st novel written by Cornwell. Like so many of the early stories, the writing and of performances from so much of the supporting cast really stands out, including Gavin O’Herlihy as the American Leroy, a very young Daniel Craig as henchman Berry, and Michael Cochrane as Simmerson, the primary villain of this story and many more to follow. If you want the textbook example of a Sharpe villain, Simmerson would be it. He’s cowardly, inept, loud, condescending and abrasive. The fun energy of this story has so much to do with how absurd Simmerson is as a character. The setup comes as Wellington actually wants Simmerson to fail, which tells you everything you need to know about Simmerson as a character before he’s even introduced. Extra credit has to go to David Troughton as Wellington. He only appeared in the first two features, and even though his successor, Hugh Fraser, had a much stronger chemistry with Sean Bean, the performance from Troughton here is so powerful and electric. Even though not a lot of time has past since Rifles story concluded, Sharpe himself is a completely different character. More confident as a leader, has a good rapport with all of the chosen men, and is no longer “playing officer”. The most interesting aspect of Sharpe’s character this time around is the conflict between him doing his job and him making decisions based on an ambition to further his career. Two scenes near the end with Hogan and Leroy perfectly sell his conflict. The battle scene at the end, where Sharpe attempts to capture an Imperial Eagle against orders, gets by despite a low budget thanks to the focus throughout the story on the goal of the British to fire three rounds in one minute. I think the Sharpe series as a whole is an example to modern shows and films that feel they have to go huge on the spectacle. Even if your setting is a massive battle, you don’t need to see thousands of soldiers. Just give the characters a purpose as simple as firing 3 shots in a minute, and follow them alone in the midst of the battle. The Battle of Talavera might be the one moment of the series that’s referenced the most throughout. In fact it would be interesting to do a count on the amount of times the words “Eagle” and Talavera” are quoted in the remaining 14 features. The climax needs to be done right to stay in an audiences mind for that many years to follow, and this is a textbook example of how to film a climax.
3- Sharpe’s Waterloo (1997)
The original 14 episode/film run of Sharpe came to an end in 1997 with Sharpe’s Waterloo, and much like Cornwell’s novel, all stops are being pulled out to deliver the most spectacular and satisfying finale possible. Outside of the conflict Sharpe had with Jane and Rossendale, the story from the viewers perspective more or less had already wrapped up over the previous two stories. The war had officially been over since Sharpe’s Revenge, and when things pick up at the beginning of Waterloo, everyone had moved on. Sharpe’s living as a farmer in France, and Harper is trading horses for a living. As anyone familiar with history knows, Napoleon escaped captivity, formed a massive army, and an alliance of nations made one last stand against him almost a year after the war had officially ended. Right from the start this feels like one last adventure for Sharpe, as he struggles with the decision to rejoin the army and then slowly meets up with Harper and the remaining chosen men. While the battle of Waterloo was too big to tell in any single episode of a series, 90s or present day, the majority of Sharpe’s scenes involve him being placed under the command the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands, played in an early role by Paul Bettany. Bettany is your typical inept commanding officer, but played with so much sincere arrogance you believe he thinks he’s in the right and not just a fool. Even if someone didn’t know who Paul Bettany was before seeing this I’d imagine they’d still know he was destined to be a huge star. Sean Bean’s interactions with him flip from hilarious to legitimately frustrated so perfectly. The Prince of Orange is there for more than to be a foil for Sharpe. We’ve seen his type of character countless time before, but this is more or less the one to push Sharpe to his breaking point. Even though it was thought to be the final story, this is one time you more or less know Sharpe is not in jeopardy of dying. The conflict he faces is having to survive the Prince’s poor leadership, and actually see Napoleon on the battlefield. The fact that Sharpe hits that breaking point is half of what Waterloo was about. The series always had to operate on a TV budget, and Clegg has always been a master at disguising budget restraints, but he more than out does himself here. Characters say they see thousands of troops, Clegg films and cuts to shots of dozens. Countless shots of soldiers being struck down, shot down, blown through the air. Those same extras were likely redressed to do it all over again 10 feet away. Plenty of character reactions tell you more about the size and horror of this battle than simply showing it would. Everything from start to finish is near perfect, but it’s the final moment between Sharpe, Harper, and all the other soldiers that is about as perfectly scripted, directed, acted, and scored as anything produced as far back as 1997.
2 – Sharpe’s Regiment (1996)
Regiment is a unique story in that it focuses more on the politics of the war, and doesn’t really feature a major battle sequence, unless you count the final scene which is just the opening minute of a battle, and is presented more as a bookend. The first act sees Sharpe and Harper travelling to England to try and find reinforcement troops, only to discover that soldiers exist on paper alone, but are secretly being traded for profit. Much like Sharpe’s Honour, this is more of a spy story than a military story, with Sharpe and Harper spending a large chunk of the time posing as recruits to gather information on the soldier trading operation. Extra tension is added as Henry Simmerson, one of the most frequently used villains, is one of the commanding officers involved in the trading, so Sharpe has to attempt to hide himself from Simmerson. This ties into one of the best sequence in the series history, as Sharpe rescues a drowning soldier and has to attempt to conceal his identity as he stands face to face with Simmerson. Following this we get an extended escape sequence of Sharpe and Harper being hunted through the marshes. This entire section of the story is executed perfectly. The tension is there, dramatic moments are there, and a quirky bit of humour thrown in from Colonel Girdwood. As if the combo of Simmerson and Girdwood weren’t enough, the better duo is Lord Fenner and Lady Anne, two characters who have a relationship complex enough to fill their own story with. Lady Anne especially messes with the audience, as you never really know what she’s up to, or what her purpose is in the story. The success of this character was great enough that the producers had her written into Sharpe’s Justice a year later. One of the more important parts of the story is the meeting (or reunion) of Sharpe and Jane, who would become the female lead for the remainder of the series. It’s an interesting addition to the story to have a character who is new to the audience, but has a history with Sharpe. I was tempted to be critical of the Sharpe and Jane relationship in Regiment, as it seems to be rushed and lacking any real connection, but as the series comes close to conclusion I realize that rushed relationship is quite important to the story they tell. While I’m sure some fans might be disappointed that Sharpe spends a lot of this story talking to higher ups and playing politics, and that the climax is more of a theatrical display than battle, personally I think that’s one of the reasons Regiment works so well. Full credit to Tom Clegg for being able to make a satisfying final act out of troops marching onto a field during a party, and then a sit down meeting as the final part.
1- Sharpe’s Company (1994)
One night over 20 years ago my brother told me I should come watch some movie called Sharpe’s Company that was airing on the history channel, simply because I was a big Sean Bean fan. At the time I thought it was one film, and had no idea it was the 3rd of 14 parts in the series. Company definitely holds a lot of nostalgia for me as it was the first I ever saw, but to be honest, I always viewed it as a top 5 favourite and not my overall #1 in the series. Watching it now as someone who has seen every story multiple times, I’m more blown away than ever at how perfect it is. After some nice scenes of Sharpe and Teresa reuniting, he learns he now has a daughter. This sets the stage for the rest of the story, as Teresa goes off to a fortress in Badajoz, which will soon be under attack. Sharpe spends most of the story trying to get approval to lead the Forlorn Hope, the group of soldiers with the unfortunate task of being the first to enter the breach of Badajoz. Sharpe’s hope is he can get in first and rescue Teresa and his daughter before any harm comes to them in the battle, but he’s continually denied this request. This plot point allows us to see Sharpe’s desperation and determination. The audience knows what the plot will be from very early on, which means so much of the running time is dedicated to waiting. This is mostly a ‘calm before the storm’ episode, which makes the battle itself so much more intense when it does come. We also have the introduction of Obadiah Hakeswill, played by Pete Postlethwaite, who has a history with Sharpe that would later be told in the novels, but for the audience seeing this the first time, you only hear of their history. Sharpe has good reason to hate Hakeswill, especially after he attempts to rape Teresa, but he outranks him, and constantly has the upper hand. Its unique in the Sharpe series to have a pathetic Gollum like villain that’s more sneaky than just arrogant. A lot of Hakeswill’s scenes are him trying to cause trouble by framing others, usually with him either getting caught or humiliated by Sharpe. No other villain would have the same impact as Hakeswill, and while a lot of that has to do with his second appearance in Enemy, I argue that Hakeswill could have been a one timer here in Company and still been the best of all time. That’s what you get when you have Pete Postlethwaite. When the battle finally arrives, it more than lives up to the build. This show was obviously working on a budget, and couldn’t stage Saving Private Ryan sized action scenes, but that actually works in their favour here. Most of it is filmed up close on the soldiers as they’re shot or blown off the screen. With this being the Forlorn Hope, the up close budget battle allows you to focus on the horror of their deaths, and not just the action and explosions. As much as this is a calm before the storm episode, there are so many different layers that build, that the climax feels like an explosion itself.