Sharpe's Challenge Review
"Bastad!" There is much worse swearing in many more films and television shows but when it's done right, even a word like bastard, which can be heard even on a pre-watershed show like EastEnders, still has the power to surprise. It may simply be that it's said with a conviction that the often pathetic gangsters of Walford Square can't quite muster but when Sean Bean's, "Bastad!", itself bastardised on a route through his native Sheffield, is uttered, it initially makes an impression. And then, through overuse, perhaps in reflection of the limited vocabulary of the British army officers in India, it becomes less shocking and increasingly and unintentionally funny. And then, with the cast slipping on the testosterone that's awash on the set, my curiousness at this long-running series of features disappears to be replaced with a wondering at how Sharpe has lasted as long as it has.
This episode of the long-running series of Sharpe features based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell opens in India in 1803 at the Chasalgaon Fort, where Sharpe is the only survivor of the ambush of an army company transporting ammunition. In time, word of this attack gets back to England along with rumours as to the renegade British officer behind it, Major William Dodd (Toby Stephens). Fourteen years later, the Duke of Wellington calls Sharpe to his residence and asks that he returns to India, not only to seek out his major but also the British agent missing from an earlier expedition to find Dodd and a Rajah, Khande Rao (Karan Panthaky), thought to be behind his actions. At first, Sharpe refuses but then he learns that the missing agent is his friend Patrick Harper (Daragh O'Malley) and pauses to consider Wellington's offer again.
Later, in India, Sharpe searches for Harper but few have heard of him and fewer still believe him to be alive. Meanwhile, Todd's attacks continue, eventually outraging the British forces there when he and his army abduct a young Englishman and woman, Laurence and Celia, and release only the head of the former to Sharpe and the rest of the British forces. Soon, the officer in command, Simmerson (Michael Cochrane), gathers his troops to launch an attack on Major Todd and Khande Rao but does very little to rescue Celia. However, realising that Sharpe has no intention of waiting and that his attempted rescue of Celia will likely result in his death, Simmerson permits Sharpe, now reunited with Harper, to disguise themselves as deserters and gain entry to Khande Rao's fort. Once there, Sharpe's plan looks to be in grave danger when Todd, wanting proof of Sharpe's loyalty, asks him to shoot Harper dead...
Printed, like the rest of his books, in hardback, Bernard Cornwell's series of Sharpe novels are a perfect example of pulp fiction dressed up as literature, the proverbial sow's ear turned purse. One doesn't doubt that Cornwell and Sharpe have a devoted following but where John Milius at least had the decency to stick doggedly to Conan The Barbarian's pulp roots, the makers of the Sharpe series, at least on the evidence of this film, appear to believe that the Sharpe novels are serious works of fiction and demand great care on their journey to the screen. Unfortuntely, the straight face worn by the producers as they went about the task of making this is all too obvious, with the lack of humour evident in a two-part feature that, for all the nudity, battles and good old fashioned punch-ups is actually rather dull and not without a streak of nastiness.
Take, for example, the abduction of Celia. Where another television show might have avoided any nudity, here there's the suggestion of sexual violence, or at least as much as is permissible in the immediate post-watershed hours, as well as the sight of actress Lucy Brown's breasts, less for a place in what artistry there is in the show and more to keep a largely male audience ticking over between the battles. Whilst it avoids any suggestion of racism, there is, in these times, the rather more obvious class struggle between the roguish, working-class Sharpe and the ineffectual upper-class officers. Clearly, the world of Sharpe operates on the principal that anyone with a regional accent, be it northern English, Irish or Scottish, is thoroughly decent whilst the plummy tones of the English officers, particularly Toby Stephens, mark them out as untrustworthy, wicked and liable to sell their own children into slavery.
Now, none of this would have been quite so objectionable had Sharpe come out of an exploitation studio. No one minds when the actresses in minor horror efforts are asked if they would mind the inclusion of a shower scene in a film otherwise set in a mortuary/graveyard/abbatoir as that's largely what's expected of them. But within Sharpe's Challenge and, I suspect, in the rest of the Sharpe novels, there's Bernard Cornwell banging on about historical accuracy as though it was actual literature that he was writing. Certainly, his appearances on radio to promote his novels mark him out as the worst kind of ex-pat, one who lives abroad but bemoans the loss of an idealised version of the homeland that he left behind, whilst his Sharpe, at least based on this, is just as dull. It could, had it taken itself much less seriously, been a rousing action/adventure but carries with it a lot of drearily accurate baggage of the times made by a production team who have gotten lost in the detail and forgotten about mindless thrills. However, it may be that Sharpe's Challenge understands its audience better than I do and so long as it's clear that the clothing, medals, politics and weaponry are sufficiently accurate, it will satisfy an audience who not only care about such things but who also have some small resentment of the upper-classes and need to be prodded awake with the occasional tit shot.
Obviously expensively made relative to a typical ITV or BBC production, Sharpe's Challenge doesn't look at all bad on DVD, looking better than it did on television but, as you might expect, not quite on a par with a feature film. The DVD transfer is soft and lacks detail, with a small amount of grain in the image that looks to have been added in post-production. Colours are good, however, being much better than I would have expected and from likely being transferred onto DVD even before being broadcast, the original recording of the show is in excellent condition. However, the lack of a DD5.1 soundtrack is a disappointment, with this DVD coming with DD2.0 Surround only. As it is, it's not bad but one would have thought that the DVD release, like many of the US boxsets, would have come with a superior audio track than that which accompanied the original broadcast of the show. Finally, there is an English subtitle track.
The main extra is a Behind The Scenes (47m08s) look at the production of Sharpe's Challenge, which begins with interviewing Bernard Cornwell talking about the character of Sharpe before spending an unnecessary amount of time loitering about the sets picking up titbits of the production. There are many, many interviews with the cast and crew and the makers of this documentary appear to have had unlimited access to the production but it's all in vain as they struggle to get anything interesting on tape. Of course, it may be that this production is manned by ordinary blokes rather than filmmakers with a passion for the material but one would have expected more interest in Sharpe's Challenge than is shown here. This is followed by a set of Deleted Scenes and Outtakes (15m55s) as well as a Photo Gallery of various production and promotional shots.
There are times when one wonders why a particular show is on television and not adapted for a feature. Several episodes of CSI, for example, would have made reasonably good films had they been expanded slightly but Sharpe's Challenge would no more suit the cinema than an episode of Take Hart. It may play across a large location but its themes, story and ambitions are small and, in the case of the actor playing Bickerstaff, so hysterically awful that even a particularly effusive amateur dramatic society might have asked him to tone it down a little. More than anything, disappointment is what I felt about Sharpe's Challenge and whilst many will disagree, it's difficult to see how this is the success that it is, less still garnering a release on DVD.