Recently, I discovered this TV series made in the early 90’s about this Napoleonic war era officer named Richard Sharpe. It is based off a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell about an officer who was raised from the ranks of common soldiers, a rare practice at the time as most officers were gentlemen. Sharpe was born in one of the slums of England to a prostitute who died when he was only 3 years old. His father was unknown. He spent his childhood in the workhouse doing things like picking oakum and trained as a chimney sweep. Fearing an early demise from that, he ran away and was taken under the care of another prostitute/bartender and taught how to steal. As a young man, he joined the army to avoid going to prison for killing a man over a local girl. He was promoted to sergeant and then to lieutenant for saving Lord Wellington from three French dragoons. The first episode deals with his first experiences of being an officer. The men don’t like him since he’s not a “proper officer” nor do the snooty other officers from the upper classes. Eventually, he wins the respect of his men who become fiercely loyal to him and of most other officers, save a few.
Sharpe is best known for his valor in combat and his “down to earth” attitude towards his men since he knows what it was like to be in their shoes. He also has more practical combat experience and insights than most of the other officers, who are more bureaucrats than soldiers. I like that about him since he’s assertive and can be firm, but also has a softer side for his men and genuinely cares for their well being. I think he exemplifies what a good leader and authority figure should be like, disciplined and assertive, able to “take the reins”, but also humble and willing to listen to his subordinates and focuses on them and the task at hand, rather than cushioning his own ego and authority.
I find most of the episodes pretty well-written, with several amusing scenes and funny side stories in each episode! I think the character development of most of the characters is well rounded with people like Sharpe and Harper being multidimensional. Most of the plots are engaging too, although I have episodes I like more than others, as usual. I particularly like “Sharpe’s Regiment”, where he has to disguise himself as a private soldier again to see why his regiment is being disbanded. It turns out corrupt officers were illegally selling men to other regiments out of greed. Some of the antics in there were funny, as well as an eye opening insight into the abusive training methods used to train the common soldiers. The drill sergeants would handle the men very roughly and scream “Filth!” at them as well as other abuses. The officer, Col. Girdwood was the worst, and was a complete tyrant! It was great to see Sharpe come back as an officer and put Girdwood in his place!
Another favorite episode was “Sharpe’s Eagle” where he had to train this unskilled South Essex Regiment. He retrained them in how to shoot a rifle in my favorite scene! It showed how Sharpe was more in tune with his men and actually was willing to teach the men what they didn’t know rather than always resorting to punishment. The other officers thought very low of the men and one said “He is a brute beast in a red coat, he needs the lash!” when another officer objected to a soldier being flogged for collapsing from heat exhaustion on parade. That same man was able to fire 4 shots a minute even after his flogging. Sharpe had to teach them to fire 3 shots a minute or they all would be flogged! Sharpe is against flogging since he faced the brutality of it as a common soldier.
Individual scenes form other episodes are also favorites of mine, such as sick parade being inspected and a man openly itching his crotch on parade due to the “pox” in “Sharpe’s Siege” and Sharpe and his men getting in trouble for playing football together by a superior officer! Another is when Sharpe first meets his men who are all dead asleep and shouting “Get up you lazy bastards!” or meets Fredrickson, an officer of the 60th Rifles in “Sharpe’s Enemy” who has a rough face from prior trauma. I also like the conflict between Sharpe and Lieutenant Ayres, the Provost, in “Sharpe’s Gold” who hangs one of his men for killing a chicken, and is forced to go on a mission with him.
Overall, I like Sharpe as a great historical fiction series. I like the authentic period costumes and the battle field tactics and soldier’s everyday lives. I think it’s a great way to get interested in the Napoleonic era!
(More screenshots I took of some of my favorite scenes!)