Sharpe remains a fond favourite of mine, and I’ll often reminiscence about the scenes (essentially identical in every movie) in which French soldiers slowly march towards the British in a line while being blasted by Sharpe’s green-jacked rifles, firing three shots to the minute.
This Christmas, the oddly-named UK TV History channel are running a Sharpe marathon, and I eagerly tuned in to watch Sharpe’s Eagle. Like other childhood favourites, I was worried whether it would age well, and first impressions indicated that it had not. The quality – at least on TV – was grainy and blithely non-widescreen. Once I’d gotten over these superficial problems though, Sharpe looked pretty much the same as if you’d produced it today – there’s only so much you can do with a story about some Napoleonic-era soldiers marching around in Spain, sleeping in tents and shooting each other with rifles.
The dialogue and acting held up wonderfully; Sean Bean is Richard Sharpe (thus ensuring a lifetime of typecasting) and the writing, presumably closely adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s original novels, barrels along with jokes, action and backstabbing. It’s about the only ITV programme I can bear to watch any more.
I noticed that Brian Cox featured in Sharpe’s Eagle, and I had a nagging suspicion that I’d seen one of the other actors before. A quick trip to IMDB revealed that the extremely nasty Lt. Berry was in fact a young Daniel Craig with black hair. Even better, he spent most of the movie either playing cards or beating people up, which provided a wonderful moment of serendipity given that I was occasionally flipping channels to watch Casino Royale at the time.
What I found most interesting about Sharpe, however, is the history that it’s based on. The main characters in the shows belong to the 95th Regiment of Foot, a highly innovative and experimental company:
In 1800 an “Experimental Corps of Riflemen”, the 95th Regiment of Foot was raised by Colonel Coote Manningham and Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. William Stewart, drawn from officers and other ranks from drafts of a variety of British regiments. The Corps differed quite a bit from the main infantry of the British Army. The Riflemen wore dark green jackets rather than the red more customary to the British Army of that time … The “Rifles” were armed with the formidable, but slow-loading Baker rifle which was more accurate and of longer range than the musket…
The Rifles were trained to think for themselves, not to blindly follow orders and together with the riflemen of the 60th (later the King’s Royal Rifle Corps) were the sharpshooters, skirmishers and scouts of the British Army. They went into battle not in line, but in skirmishing formations ahead of the main infantry, who were bunched into close formations, to snipe at their opponents and take cover in the process. These tactics – originated by the 60th in campaigns in North America – were unusual for that time. It was generally deemed to be dishonourable to deliberately aim at an individual, and conventional tactics favoured the volley from a close formation and the bayonet…
On top of this, the unit’s operation was markedly different from the line infantry. Flogging was abolished as a means of enforcing military discipline (a very progressive move and unheard of for the times), they held regular shooting and sporting competitions, and were rewarded for their achievements. Officers would regularly dine with their men and in so doing would become familiar with each man in their respective companies, a practice also unheard of at the time.
The performance of the regiment can be demonstrated by the story of Rifleman Thomas Plunkett of the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles. Plunkett, armed with a Baker rifle, allegedly shot the French General Colbert at a range of between 400 and 800 yards during the Peninsula War. Apparently, he then shot a second Frenchman who rode to the general’s aid, proving that his was not just a lucky shot. By comparison, a standard issue Brown Bess musket could not be relied upon to hit a man-sized target at over 60 yards.
(compiled from Wikipedia)
It’s hardly surprising that Bernard Cornwell picked the 95th as Sharpe’s company given its groundbreaking nature, and this finally explains the eternal mystery of why the French would always march – very slowly – towards their doom in every single movie…