Series review: Sharpe

This week’s guest article is written by Count Numbers!

About two weeks ago I stopped being able to sleep. I could fall asleep fine, but I’d wake up every ninety minutes. Essentially I’ve just come out of about twelve days surviving on naps.

Don’t want to dwell on this too much, but it’s been hell. Mind and body both started shutting down. Two weeks is a long time for injuries to not heal, and by yesterday morning I actually forgot my own name. But I managed to haul myself to a doctor, and I’m doing better.

To make a long story short, inside me there are two wolves. One is chomping and snarling at the fact I haven’t been able to work that entire time, and the other is just as fierce that I need to rest and recover.

They’ve come to an uneasy compromise over a Sharpe DVD boxset.

I have a thing for a man in 18th century uniform.

The compromise is simple. I get to write a great piece for you, and it doesn’t feel like work. Talking about Sharpe is effortless. What I really want to talk about is how its low-budget production actually enhances the show, and how cheap cameras can actually change the moral of a story. But before I can do that, I have to explain the entire history of eighteenth century warfare.

Sharpe is a series named for its protagonist, Richard Sharpe, a rifleman under the Duke of Wellington. The books start with Sharpe as a musketeer, but the TV series skips straight to him being one of Wellington’s famous “Green Jackets” – light infantrymen who used cover, moved on their own initiative, picked their own targets, and actually aimed before they shot.

That is to say, Sharpe’s an action hero, but he’s clearing a very low bar. He’s basically Rambo, if all it took to be Rambo was being able to shoot a guy before he could walk across a field at you.

The Napoleonics are a truly insane period for warfare, see. There’s a reason battles were fought the way they were, with long lines of men walking within spitting distance of each other before drawing their firearms point blank. Muskets could be perfectly accurate, in the right hands, but army doctrine focused entirely on rate of fire, before charging with bayonets. Aiming was missing the point.

Napoleon himself focused on cavalry, artillery and grenadiers – that was his genius. Superior artillery would force the enemy into engaging the French in entrenched positions. The French line infantry would hold the enemy in place while the artillery did its work. Grenadiers would then storm the shaken lines, causing a panicked retreat, and fleeing soldiers would be cut down by cavalry.

‘Grenadier’ doesn’t mean what you’d expect, by the way. Originally they did carry hand grenades, so they recruited the biggest, burliest, bravest men who could get in close and throw them hard, but generals soon figured out that the men were deadlier than the bombs. So ‘grenadiers’ really means ‘a wall of fuck-huge men with swords’.

Genius. You can prove it with a bit of easy maths. See:

1: Line infantrymen had only a 1/200 chance of hitting a shot at 50 meters, and took twenty seconds to reload.[1]

2: A very large man with a sword runs at approximately 3.5 meters per second. He takes only fifteen seconds to run 50 meters.

3: Swords don’t need to reload.

Which is where we get back to why Wellington’s Rifles were so special, why it’s a big deal they aimed their shots. The best generals in the world, at that moment, saw infantry only as a wall of meat that protected the artillery. Even bayonet charges weren’t actually meant to be lethal – they were meant to cause a morale shock that cavalry could take advantage of.

The brilliance of the Sharpe series is how it uses that history to sell its protagonist, and how it uses its protagonist to teach the history. As a modern audience, it’s surreal to think things like ‘aiming’ were innovative. The brilliance is in how the series author, Bernard Cornwell, builds that feeling into the work.

See, there are parts of the Napoleonic period that are very stupid, and others that only look stupid but are actually very sensible, and it’s hard to tell which is which. The past is a foreign country, and Cornwell chooses a rifle officer as the perfect ambassador. Sharpe is a man slightly ahead of his time, but only slightly. Through him, we have a native perspective on what was clever, and what was as stupid as it looked.

Take, for instance, rifling. If rifles were so much more accurate than muskets, why weren’t rifles made standard issue right away? Well, because they were still muzzle-loaded, and it’s a lot faster to muzzle-load a smooth-bore musket. Even Sharpe’s definition of a good soldier is a man who can fire three rounds a minute in any weather – and it’s a point of pride that he can hit that number even with a rifled barrel. Even to Sharpe, accuracy comes second. He’s a savvy contemporary, not a historian’s polemic.

This is actually a really hard needle to thread with historical fiction, but I think Cornwell does it well. It’d be one thing to have the character be entirely of their time, so they can play devil’s advocate to the audience, but it sucks when the perspective character can’t relate to us. Going the other direction, though, a character ahead of their time will feel distanced from their contemporaries, like an outsider looking in.

Cornwell’s solution is to incorporate that into the story as a deliberate element. Sharpe’s outsider tendencies constantly put him in danger, and it’s most obvious when he refuses to play in the politics that define his life. It’s clearly a character flaw, but it’s a sympathetic one, because it’s taken for granted we agree the politics are bloody stupid. More than Rambo, he’s Galileo with a gun.

Enlisted officers like Sharpe really were seen as scum by their peers and their subordinates. The gentry were considered to be a better species of human. It didn’t matter that so many were cruel, incompetent and cowardly – they were literate. Sharpe is a barely literate bastard born in a brothel who keeps taking ranks only fit to be held by gentlemen. Obviously nobody wants to sit with him at lunch.

It’s a problem with action stories. The best bad guys are incompetent people with too much power, but then you end up asking how they ended up with so much power in the first place. But again, Sharpe uses the real history to bolster the storytelling. Back then officers bought their commission. Every time Sharpe gets promoted through some act of heroism, every new rank he gets through some combination of getting shot, stabbed and bombed, he asks how much he can sell his rank for. Sharpe had to cut down a dozen men, and his replacement only needs to cut a cheque.

Again, what I really want to hammer home is that Sharpe was written by someone who wanted to do historical storytelling without compromising the story or the history. The story was chosen to best teach this historical period, and the history is used to tell a better story. It really is an important part of why cheap cameras changed the moral undertones when the books were made into a TV series. The medium changed the message.

Okay, so for all I’ve been talking about how the non-fiction and fiction elements support each other, the story and the history have conflicting morals. While action stories tend to come with a simple moral message, the real history prevents the French from being an unambiguous antagonist.

In Sharpe, the French aren’t the enemy so much as an environmental hazard. The real challenge for the British is surviving their own officers. It’s obvious why Napoleon didn’t see the value of snipers: if the French had been better at killing British officers, it would have only helped Britain.

The French are almost always competent in Sharpe, never especially brilliant or cunning, and it’s all they need to turn an entire British platoon into lumpy hamburger. It’s like watching a boxing match where one guy’s strategy is to just hold his fist out directly in front of him and he keeps winning.

The rifles are interesting because they were a new model army, a way for men to get promoted through the ranks through merit. That stands out among the British, but it was true for Napoleon’s whole army. Sharpe even has conversations with French officers who tell him he’d have been a colonel years ago, if he’d been French. By the end of the books, even most of his equipment is French. They actually looked after their soldiers. England, by comparison, went months without paying its soldiers. Sometimes it went months without feeding them.

This is where the tension comes in. While both England and France are autocratic at this point, France is far closer to democracy. Sharpe’s rifles are fighting to defend the aristocratic monarchy that serves as the story’s real villain. This is most extreme with the Irish riflemen, and there are a lot of them. They experience the spectacular levels of racism you’d expect, when you know that the potato famine is about to be done to them. Just a reminder, the potato famine was a deliberate genocide attempt.

It’s not a coincidence. The rifles were very much a death-or-glory regiment, filled with undesirables deemed fit to fire a weapon but not to hold a line. It’s something the books don’t shy away from. A lot of Sharpe’s best men are only there because of racist oppression or as prison sentences. It’s not a subtle theme. Sharpe has good reasons for who he’s fighting with, less for what he’s fighting for.

Cornwell bites the bullet by showing Sharpe as fighting for a personal sense of duty, because being a good soldier proves his worth. He’s also loyal to the (Irish) Duke of Wellington, who actually was a man worth that loyalty.

Again, the rifles are a great place to tell this story. They were an experiment to see if there was any military advantage to treating your soldiers as thinking human beings, and not as interchangable parts of a faceless machine. And the results were so uncomfortably damning that the British Empire had to pretend to forget about them for sixty years, until the Boer Wars. Cornwell tells that story well.

But in telling that story, he is caught between his two moral themes. On the one hand, war is hell, and good men die following bad orders. On the other hand, you could be a big damn hero, and being hard enough to survive hell is cool as shit.

Enter the big damn heroes at the BBC, and Sean Bean being the hottest man alive.

Filmed on the world’s cheapest cameras.

The BBC series follows the books with loyalty, with one episode for every book – and an episode runs for 140 minutes, enough time to do each one justice. I personally love them, but I couldn’t imagine another person on Earth I’d recommend them to. It feels like they’re a love letter to me personally.

Because they really are a work of love, there’s no other way to describe it. It was made in 1993, clearly on a shoestring budget. It really shows off what you can do when all you have are a lot of enthusiastic people and a lot of talent. It also shows what you can’t do.

The cast all give phenomenal performances. Every prop looks like it was pulled from a museum, every costume looks handmade. And it’s the BBC, so most of the time it’s cheaper to use the real historical locations rather than build a set.

But there’s a reason people build sets when they have the money. Reality is usually fairly underwhelming, or at least, doesn’t photograph well. More than that, it lets you have much more control of your lighting, and ensures you have the power that can run them. Old school lighting eats electricity, and you can’t guarantee that historical locations can handle that.

The Duke of Wellington’s office is clearly one such location, and you can tell because of how sharp their reliance on natural light is. Personally I love this, but it just screams ‘amateur production’.

In solidarity, I will not crop this screenshot.

This blend of budgets creates a unique feeling. Everything about what you actually see rings as authentic – there are no flaws in the costume or characters that break immersion. So when the camera and lighting feels like a home movie, at times, it actually lends the work to feeling more like a documentary, like archival footage. And even in its theatrical moments, it keeps to long locked-off shots, trying to show as much as possible in as few cuts and movements as possible.

When things feel cheap – most of the time it’s the powder flashes and cannonballs going off – it’s not the production running out of money. It’s reality being underwhelming. Usually pyrotechnicians add sachets of gasoline to create that signature fireball. Without it, a roaring cannon is just a kind of lame puff of white smoke. Especially on film, when you can’t feel that sound wave suck your chest in and shake your bones loose from the muscles that hold them. It’s an artistic decision to stick so close to realism.

This means that even though the story’s the same, the characters are the same, the dialogue is the same, the shift in medium changes the message. Because the books could play in the theater in your mind. Vivid descriptions of cannons roaring and legs being ripped off and blood and guts and gore and war is hell, ra, ra.

But in the raw, authentic, documentarian portrayal of a BBC television series, those images are robbed of their emotional impact. The reality isn’t just disappointing – it’s silly. It’s slapstick. That’s not from an amateur portrayal, but because of that same dedication to portraying a very, very stupid bit of history.

In the book, you exist in the feeling of having to lock eyes with another man and march towards each other, rifles slung over your shoulders while cannonballs whizz about. The French use small calibre cannons that can be pulled by horses at a gallop, so they can position them side-on to a line of men. The six pound ball of lead fires at a low angle so it skims like a stone across water at knee height, ripping legs out from under the column like bowling pins. It’s always at the edge of your mind it could be about to happen.

On television? You watch two men in stitch-accurate uniform walk up to each other without aiming the muskets slung over their shoulders, while big white cracks of smoke pop off in random parts of a bright green meadow. The cannonballs themselves are too fast to see. You’re locked out of their heads. Unlike prose, you can’t follow the method to the madness. You’re only left with the madness.

It’s one of the few times where I think the adaptation is better than the books. There’s always something that gets lost in translation, but what was lost here was the contradiction. Sharpe’s still a big damn hero swanning about, but the misery of the Napoleonic war remains without any of its romance.

Sharpe still follows orders from earnest puppy-dog fourteen year old captains whose parents bought their commission. But when that fourteen year old gets shot with a seven-barrelled shotgun, the idea in your head is the size of the emotion. It’s as large as the feeling.

You know what it actually looks like? It looks like a kid tripping over and not getting back up. And that’s how the show films it, without action close-ups or any garnish. Documentarian.

It looks ridiculous. It’s a lot of men dying in silly outfits in silly places for silly reasons. It’s one thing to be told there’s no glory in it, by a battle-hardened narrator. There’s a poetry to that, like Johnny Cash singing “Hurt”.

It’s another thing to see it, portrayed without embellishment. How it would really look, and not how we feel it should look. But then you ask yourself why you imagined getting stabbed with a bayonet would look any different to getting poked with a stick. It feels like it should, but it doesn’t.

It’s my favourite thing about Kurosawa movies, and he did it best in Seven Samurai. But there, those same raw and real elements of spear stabbings looking like school playground games are still done in such a stylish, breathtaking cinematic style. Sharpe looks like it was filmed on your grandmother’s camcorder, and that’s what makes it perfect.

Sharpe’s people are too well-written and well-performed to be in a series shot hoping the direct-to-vhs quality would hide the sins of dim lighting. They’re all people you’d never look at twice if you passed them in the street. So when they die slumped over from a gutshot, and it just looks like they’ve fallen asleep waiting for a bus, the reality refuses to live up to the tragedy we crave. There is no great catharsis.

And it makes you hate those officers so much more. It’s one thing to be told they throw mens’ lives away for glory. But in refusing to be more cinematic, more theatrical, Sharpe refuses to make the meaninglessness its own kind of meaning, refuses the weight of tragic poetry.

War is something far worse than hell. It’s a cheap sitcom without a laughtrack.

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[1] “Many of the riflemen who had served in other regiments marvelled at the superiority of the 95th’s techniques and instruction, one such commenting: ‘Eight out of ten soldiers in our regular regiments will aim in the same manner at an object at the distance of three hundred yards, as at one only fifty. It must hence be evident that the greater part of those shots are lost or expended in vain; indeed the calculation has been made, that only one shot out of two hundred fired from muskets in the field takes effect, while one out of twenty from rifles is the average.’ In this way, the Green Jackets hoped to more than compensate for the rifle’s rate of fire, which with perhaps one shot per minute was two or three times slower than a smooth-bore musket.”

Rifles: Six Years with Wellington’s Sharpshooters, Mark Urban.