Heroism and adventure amidst the nasty, bloody business of warfare as the British alliance fights against the Napoleonic juggernaut on the long journey that ends at the crossroads called Waterloo.
Based on the meticulously researched, resoundingly entertaining series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe's Rifles is one of many episodes that tell the tale of Richard Sharpe, a blood-spattered, old-fashioned hero. It is a pity that the DVD release does not take advantage of the format.
Sometimes, the typical flood of Hollywood fare can be tiresome, heavily flavored with big-budget special effects fests and mindless, lowest common denominator comedy. A sure-fire antidote to this sameness, blandness, and mediocrity is a superior historical drama, such as we often find from our cousins "across the pond" in the U.K. Sharpe's Rifles is merely the latest example to be released to DVD disc, the first of fourteen installments which cover the eponymous fictional soldier's lengthy career of military heroism in the Peninsular War campaign, beginning here in 1809.
Straightforward heroism and old-fashioned courage, flashes of appropriate adult romance, and attention to historical detail combine in Sharpe's Rifles to please the heart and entertain the brain. If you have read C.S. Forester's seafaring Horatio Hornblower novels, or were treated to the DVD release of the four A&E movies based on Forester's novels, then I strongly urge you to check out his landed counterpart, Richard Sharpe!
This tale of Richard Sharpe does begin in 1809, as the commander of the allied armies in Portugal and Spain, Sir Arthur Wellesley (David Troughton), is resting his forces before continuing his attacks against the French. In an unwary moment, French dragoons come so very narrowly to causing Wellesley great harm, prevented only by the heroic efforts of Sergeant Richard Sharpe (Sean Bean). In gratitude, he grants Sharpe the mixed blessing of a battlefield commission as Lieutenant.
The newly minted Lieutenant Sharpe is in a no-win situation, where the common soldiers and elite officers are strangely united in their suspicion of this upstart officer. Hoping to use this rogue officer for his own ends, Major Hogan (Brian Cox), who is Wellesley's chief spymaster, attaches Sharpe to an expedition headed into the countryside to locate a missing banker who possesses the funds to keep the British army in the field. A surprise attack by French dragoons means utter disaster for the expedition and leaves an isolated Sharpe in command of a small group of disdainful riflemen. Sharpe's limited grip on his command is nearly broken by the bull-headed Patrick Harper (Daragh O'Malley), and only the providential appearance of Major Blas Vivar (Simon Andreau) and a contingent of Spanish partisans save the day.
Major Vivar convinces Sharpe that they should travel together so that Sharpe has a chance to complete his mission to locate Wellesley's banker and Vivar gets added security for his own mysterious journey north. Only when the dragoons reappear to ambush the allied force does Vivar realize that he must confide in Sharpe if he is to complete his own mission. In these dark days, when the French and their Spanish allies have deposed the King and the royalist forces, Vivar knows that the people need a sign of God's favor to inspire them to continue their bitter resistance. He plans to fulfill an ancient prophecy and raise the banner of Santiago (St. James) in the small town of Torrecastro, and wants the help of Sharpe and his men to fight off the French long enough to accomplish that task.
Sharpe is deeply skeptical, but his doubts are overridden when Major Hogan slinks out of the shadows and makes it an order. Wellesley wants the Spanish people to be in a mood to fight, and this small miracle will do its part to help. Sharpe reluctantly agrees, and so the stage is set for a small-scale but bitterly fought battle for temporary control of Torrecastro and the right to create a minor miracle.
The care taken in selecting the cast for Sharpe's Rifles is evident not only in the quality of their performances, but also in their physical appearances. The strongest evidence is found in the person of David Troughton, whose aristocratic fire and hooked nose are quite reminiscent of the real-life Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Lord Wellington) that he portrays here (and in the second episode, Sharpe's Eagle). As for the others, this is an excellent ensemble cast. Sean Bean (Patriot Games, Goldeneye, Ronin) brings Richard Sharpe to life, showing the inner struggles of a battle-hardened common soldier who is thrust into the frightening, foreign world of the officer corps. His hero is a deadly fighter, a sensitive lover, and an officer who is more of a moral gentlemen than those who are to the manor born.
As Sergeant Patrick Harper, Daragh O'Malley (Texas, Longitude) evokes respect and smiles with his loyal, charming, and fiercely Irish performance. Assumpta Serna (The Craft) is credible as a Spanish lady driven by horrific abuse to take murderous revenge upon the French army and who finds personal intimacy more daunting than any battle. Finally, I could go on in similar fashion about other members of this fine ensemble, but I cannot finish without noting the performance of Brian Cox (Manhunter, Rushmore, Nuremburg) as Major Hogan. Brian Cox does well to show Hogan as outwardly quite friendly and gregarious, but at his core a coldly calculating warrior-spy willing to sacrifice lives in the greater cause of defeating Napoleon.
The adaptation of Sharpe's Rifles from Bernard Cornwell's book into Eoghan Harris' script keeps the central plot intact, though having read the book, I kept expecting to find on the screen the larger scope of action found in the novel. Alas, the budget of Sharpe's Rifles could not fund the literal armies of extras that this would have required! Otherwise, intelligent plot development and quality acting compliment the many tense action scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you have had the opportunity to see this episode on VHS tape, then you would be surprised to see what it looks like on a DVD disc. Sadly, not that different! The picture is as soft as a newborn baby's blanket, which is particularly disconcerting to eyes accustomed to typical DVD sharpness. Colors are moderately saturated, though a few of the British redcoats are so bright red that the color bleeds somewhat. While dirt and film defects are rarely seen, there is a fair amount of video noise and film grain visible through the film, though to varying degrees from barely noticeable to painfully obvious. I can understand that financial realities for a niche-market title like this might make a new high-definition transfer impossible, but I don't have to like it.
The audio is somewhere between a mono and a Dolby Surround presentation. The action is exclusively located in the center channel, though the front mains and rear surrounds are effectively used for ambient fill and music. My subwoofer received just enough work to keep it from automatically shutting off, mostly in the battle scenes and the occasional low musical tones. Clearly the makers of Sharpe's Rifles didn't spend a lot of the budget on creating a pleasing multi-channel soundfield!
There are no extras. Period. Heck, aside from scene selection, there are no other menu options! No alternate language soundtracks, no subtitles or captions, no trailer (aside from the mandatory ad for the series that runs upon disc insertion), nothing at all. For shame BFS!
A rousing adventure with spirit, Sharpe's Rifles is particularly suited to fans of historical drama, British television, and those looking for a change of pace from Hollywood fare. Though the quality of the presentation may be lacking, the price is still fairly decent ($20 retail).
Sharpe's Rifles is acquitted, but BFS Video is guilty of criminal indifference to the DVD format and sentenced to imprisonment at Her Majesty's pleasure. I have it on good authority that attention to basic quality standards of DVD presentation would go a long way towards convincing the Crown to release the prisoner.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BFS Video
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