Sharpe's Challenge
U.K. (Made for TV) | 2006
Directed by Tom Clegg
Starring
Sean Bean
Daragh O'Malley
Toby Stephens
Color | 138 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD(R1 - NTSC)
BBC Warner
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Also available on Blu-ray
Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
7
    7   10 = Highest Rating  
I am proud to march in Sharpe's army of fans.
    T
o date I've read twenty of Bernard Cornwell's twenty-one Sharpe novels (am just starting the latest, Sharpe's Fury) and have enjoyed the hell out of 'em. They chronicle the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a guttersnipe orphan who signs up to "take the King's shilling" in the British infantry just as Napoleon makes his bid for mastery of Europe. Saving the life of no less a personage than Lord Wellington himself during the Battle of Assaye (1803), Sharpe is given a field commission in reward for his valor and quick thinking. Thus from the lowest dregs of society Sharpe rises, in the course of military campaigns over the next two decades, from lowly private soldier to colonel. He participates in battles famous and not-so-famous, loves and loses beautiful women, and undertakes daring espionage missions for Wellington's intelligence chief. He also develops a singular talent for rubbing many of his higher-born fellow officers the snobbish gentry, haughty aristocrats and incompetent fops the wrong way, occasionally with deadly results. (At times it seems as if Sharpe has as many enemies on his side of the lines, wearing the uniform of Britain and its allies, as he does in Napoleon's legions.) A fierce fighter, he is an expert swordsman and rifle shot, which matched with personal bravery and natural cunning make him the deadliest of opponents. He may lack the social graces expected in the officer's mess but this roughhewn commoner is the right kind of soldier to command the green-jacketed "Chosen Men", elite skirmishers who are first into battle and often last to leave the field. With his best friend and right-hand man, the gregarious and lethal Irishman, Sgt. Harper, at his side, Sharpe leads them into Hell and back again during the toughest, bloodiest campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars.
   
King George commands and we obey... Over the hills and far away...
    The Sharpe novels proved a natural for television adaptation. A highly successful series of telefilms was launched by the ITV network beginning with Sharpe's Rifles in 1993. Sean Bean starred as Sharpe, with Daragh O'Malley as Harper, in all fourteen films produced between '93 and '97. Given their relatively small budgets, these tended to focus more on missions behind enemy lines than expensive, large-scale battles, and the chronology of events in the literary timeline was significantly altered. Two of the films, Sharpe's Mission (1996) and Sharpe's Justice (1997), were completely original teleplays that had no relation to any of Cornwell's books beyond the characters. Even so, the series proved as popular with fans of the novels as it was with the general British public. (Here in the States the Sharpe movies have aired on PBS, The History Channel and BBC America, developing a small but devoted cult following.) Sean Bean brought the swashbuckling Sharpe fully to life and made the character his own, quickly coming to the notice of Hollywood and propelling his career to new heights. Roles in blockbuster hits like GoldenEye and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings saga, among others, subsequently made Bean an internationally known movie star. It was assumed that with Sharpe's Waterloo (1997), the heroic officer had marched off the field for the last time, even though there were still untapped books and Cornwell continued to write more...
    Never count out Richard Sharpe.
    Sharpe's Challenge, the most lavish installment of the series to date, comes after a long nine year hiatus. Loosely based on Cornwell's "India Trilogy" (Sharpe's Tiger, Triumph, and Fortress), the film takes the setting and characters from those books and totally flips the chronology instead of happening at the start of his career, in his early to mid twenties (prior to the events of any of the TV episodes), Challenge picks up with an older, middle-aged Sharpe in 1817, two years after Waterloo. Now retired from the army, living a farmer's life in pacified France, Sharpe is summoned to England for a meeting with his former commander, the Duke of Wellington (Hugh Fraser). The Duke has a mission for him. In British-controlled India, a young Mahratta prince named Khande Roa is fomenting rebellion against the Crown's control, potentially threatening the powerful East India Company's business interests. Rumors have circulated that the prince's troops are being trained by European mercenaries and are led by a renegade English officer. An undercover scout was sent into Khande Rao's territory to determine the scope of the uprising and, if possible, learn the identity of the turncoat Englishman. Unfortunately the scout never reported back. Nothing's been heard of him for the past six months. With a small British army now assembling to march against Khande Roa, Wellington asks Sharpe to go to India and take up the lost scout's mission if possible, finding out what became of the missing man in the process. Sharpe knows the country, having served in that part of India as a sergeant 14 years earlier, and his experience in such desperate undertakings during the last war makes him the ideal man for the job. But since Col. Sharpe is retired from military duty, he can't be ordered to go. Will he volunteer for the assignment?
    To His Grace's disappointment Sharpe respectfully declines. He was lucky to have survived all those battles against Boney's boys, all those secret missions in Portugal and Spain. He's through with fighting. Then Wellington plays his trump card: the missing scout is none other than Sgt. Harper, Sharpe's closest and dearest friend, whom he hasn't seen since Waterloo.
    Thus Sharpe is off on his most exotic adventure. He isn't long in India before running into his old comrade Harper isn't dead, of course and butting heads with the incompetent ass in temporary command of the British 3rd Army, Sir Henry Simmerson (Michael Cochrane), a nemesis from Sharpe's past. The 3rd's commander-in-chief has fallen ill and his beautiful daughter Celia (Lucy Brown) captured by Khande Rao's forces. A message from the prince, delivered with the severed head of an English officer, makes quite clear that if the British march on his citadel the pretty hostage will have her throat cut. Posing as deserters, Sharpe and Harper infiltrate Khande Rao's fortress and make plans to rescue Celia, reconnoitering the fort's defenses in the process. They discover that the prince's general, the psychotic renegade Englishman William Dodd (Toby Stephens), has a nasty surprise in store for any attacking British force a deadly trap that could wipe out half a besieging army in one blow...
    Even more so than the previous installments, Sharpe's Challenge is a rollicking, old-fashioned Boy's Own adventure spiced up with salty language, plenty of violence (one poor sod has a nail driven into his skull by a Jetti strongman) and even a bit of skin. (Surprisingly, yummy Lucy Brown has a topless scene literally a bodice-ripper.) This is Masterpiece Theatre for action movie lovers, complete with sword fights between two former Bond movie villains. (Stephens crossed blades with Pierce Brosnan in 2002's Die Another Day.) Bean is in great form, even if this older Sharpe isn't so full of "piss and vinegar" as he once was. Having him back in action, with the charmingly roguish O'Malley alongside, will delight series fans. They're supported by an able cast who avoid pretentiousness despite the formality of some of the dialog, resisting the temptation of outright hammery. (Only a supposedly poignant death scene near the end rings a bit hollow and feels forced.) Providing a temptation for Sharpe, amongst a plenitude of palace intrigue, is seductive Padme Lakshme, a sultry Indian actress with a fabulously sexy voice. And the willowy Brown (Minotaur) is terrifically appealing.
    Under the direction of Tom Clegg, who helmed all the previous Sharpe films, Challenge has the sweep and feel of a much bigger-budgeted theatrical production. The action is generally well-handled; that it was shot on location in India (the ancient forts and palaces around Rajasthan) lends an authentic sense of verisimilitude. No CGI was needed to enhance the exoticism of these skylines, even if they'd had the money for it in the budget. If they'd had the money, however, it could've been put to good use digitally enhancing the size of the opposing armies... The paucity of forces in the large-scale battles has always been a weakness of these television productions, and why the writers have for the most part chosen to focus on other things.
    If you already belong to the Cult of Sharpe then seeing this is a given. If you don't know Sharpe but like action-adventure films with a pinch of history, such as Captain Blood, it could well be the ticket. Challenge joins Sharpe's Enemy (1994) as my favorite of the series; both are excellent choices for anyone who'd like to sample a bit of Sharpe before trying the other films (or the novels, for that matter).

What may very well be the last Sharpe film receives solid, if not quite exemplary, treatment on DVD. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is leagues better than the muddy-looking Sharpe discs released by BFS Video a few years ago (now OOP), giving the film a pleasing, theatrical-style presentation. There's nothing to complain about visually except for some minor artifacting in a couple of the darker scenes. A basic stereo audio track gets the job done adequately, though without any bells or whistles. (Optional subtitles are available for when the various dialects get a bit thick for American ears, to include Bean's he gives his native Yorkshire accent free rein and can be hard to understand when speaking in quieter tones.) Among the extras is a 47-minute documentary, Sharpe's Challenge: Behind the Scenes. While the doc's narration is pure promotional-piece puffery the candid footage is actually quite interesting. (Over 700 extras were employed; half the cast and crew came down with severe diarrhea; shootable, authentically detailed cannon were forged by local metal workers for the battle scenes, etc.) It was indeed a challenge to shoot the film entirely in India, as this featurette readily attests. A selection of trimmed/deleted scenes and an image gallery are also included.
    My only significant complaint with the DVD is the clumsy way this originally two-part film is stitched together, which is to say not at all. Part One concludes, the credits roll, and then Part Two immediately commences (complete with "previously" recap) on DVD chapter 9. The two parts could have very easily been seamlessly combined into a single program.
2/04/07
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