I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Richard Fucking Sharpe!


by Joe DeMartino
July 5, 2011

Sean Bean is cursed, did you know this? The man pays a horrible psychic price in nearly all of his high-profile roles. He was killed by the arrows of an Uruk-Hai in the first Lord of the Rings film. Christian Bale shot him in the face in Equilibrium. Pierce Brosnan dropped an entire satellite dish on him in GoldenEye. If you’ve been watching HBO’s Game of Thrones this season, you know that he was stabbed in the leg, imprisoned, outwitted, and finally beheaded by a man with no tongue, after being set up as the primary protagonist for the entire first season. He has what some circles would define as the Michelle Rodriguez problem--something about him makes directors want to kill him in horrible ways.

You’ll never hear him complain. The man will forever quietly suffer the indignities of thousands of blank rounds and prop knives (and at least one particularly convincing plaster cast of his recently severed head). Why? Because his curse has two ancillary benefits.

Sean Bean, you see, is functionally immortal, an ageless daywalker who will has perpetually frozen in his mid-30s to early-40s. I know this sounds unbelievable. I wasn’t convinced either when I first noticed that he hasn’t aged visibly since about 1995.

The second benefit (and this is the real kicker) clinches the whole deal -- Sean Bean’s eternal youth allows him to play Richard Fucking Sharpe until the heat death of the universe.

Unless you’re reading this in a country with a history of royal weddings and pith helmets, you’re probably not familiar with Sharpe. That’s cool. Lack of familiarity with Sharpe is a hefty price, but it’s counterbalanced by things like baseball, the Grand Canyon, two oceans, Edward James Olmos, Batman, the Tea Party (original flavor), Lady Gaga and the Fourth of July. Goddamn, just LISTING those things makes me want to hum the Star-Spangled Banner while being shelled in a fortress in the early 19th century, which is actually something that happens to Sharpe on a regular basis (sans anthem).

Sharpe, and here we’re talking about the series as opposed to the character, as I’ve handily indicated due to the italics, is based off a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, who is one of those impressively productive grognards who somehow manages to write a fairly hefty novel about once every two years. The Sharpe series encompasses 24 books, all centered around the eponymous Richard Sharpe, a rifleman in the British army in the very late 18th and early 19th century. Sharpe is unusual in that he is an officer, but not a gentleman -- he was raised from the ranks by Arthur Wellsley, the Duke of Wellington himself, in an exceptionally unusual move for the time.

What did he to to deserve such a jump in pay grade? The first scene of Sharpe’s Rifles, which is the beginning of the Sharpe television series, makes it pretty clear. Wellington is going for a ride outside of camp, because planning a war against someone as brilliant as Napoleon Bonaparte is at least a little bit stressful. At that moment, a trio of French cavalrymen (whose intimidating-looking armor is counterbalanced by their ridiculous-looking chef hats*) burst out of the treeline, making a beeline for Wellington.

*As if they weren’t French enough, one of them actually says: “Mon DIEU! Le GENERAL!”

Wellington’s in a panic. These guys look like their intentions are to chop the Duke into blue bloodstained pieces.* He starts to ride away, but it’s obvious that they’ll catch him.

*You would not believe how often officers get killed in this series. There are whole sequences of one officer after another picking up a flag and getting shot for their troubles. This generally ends when Sharpe picks up the flag, in which case the bullets magically cease to arrive. If they do hit him, they hit him in his left shoulder, which by the tenth movie or so is probably 95% composed of bullet anyways, so no biggie.

Fortunately for Wellington, Richard Sharpe has chosen that exact moment to take a bath in a nearby pond. As the Duke’s horse gets bogged down in the water, Sharpe grabs a rifle, shoots one of the French cavalrymen, and takes down the other two with an impressive array of rifle beatings and almost getting cut in half.

“I'm much obliged to you,” says Wellington. “You've done me a damn good turn. Now I'm going to do you a damn bad one. I'm giving you a field commission, Sharpe. As of now you're a lieutenant in the 95th!”

This is a huge deal! We may have gotten over the whole issue of class by that point in America*, but in the British army, if you weren’t a gentleman, your options for promotion generally stopped at sergeant. The Brits still clung to the belief that only someone of noble or aristocratic blood could truly command other men. Fortunately for Sharpe, Wellington hates stupid people more than he loves white male landowning privilege, and uses Sharpe as kind of his own personal murder machine.

*Ha ha! Just wanted to see if you were paying attention. No, we totally hadn't.

This ends up working out pretty well for Sharpe, because aside from a few principles he is unwilling to break, he's probably one of the least noble mythical heroes in television or literature. Sharpe is motivated by nothing more noble than advancement. He does absolutely crazy things in order to get promoted so he can make more money. Sure, he fights for King and Country, and is a Father To His Men, but for the most part, Sharpe just wants to get paid, son. It’s just that he gets paid for things like storming a fortress, or taking a hill, or stealing a French eagle standard in some kind of really incredibly dangerous game of capture the flag.

Most protagonists have at least a marginal respect for things like rules and conventions, but Sharpe relies on the fact that he is way, way too useful to Wellington for anyone to really punish him. Most of his higher ups that he doesn’t end up shooting have kind of a “Oh, that Sharpe!” attitude toward his various indiscretions, like he’s some kind of sharpshooting Marmaduke. It gets to the point where, when Sharpe is framed for murder in one installment of the series, they end up hanging someone else just to trick people into thinking he was dead.

Sharpe is a big fan of duelling, even though Wellington expressly forbids it. The whole thing about his being promoted from the ranks comes up all the time, usually by prattish shitheads whom Sharpe then has to bludgeon into submission. It's a recurring theme throughout the series that some of these Lord Fauntleroyii are technically better swordsmen than Sharpe. Several times, he'll be on the verge of getting poked full of holes, only to unleash his most powerful weapon:

The Sharpe Dick Kick.

All those aristocratic ninnies, you see, have little to no experience in actual battle. They expect a duel to be well-ordered and honor-bound. Sharpe thinks this is a bunch of bullshit -- he's a serious man and treats things like duels seriously. Therefore, when the opportunity presents itself, he is fully willing to abandon all pretense and put his booted foot into his enemy's groin. It's funny and awesome every single time he does it. Sometimes, when I'm feeling down, I reminisce about the time Sharpe kicked a rapist in the dick, or the time he kicked another rapist in the dick. It puts kind of a harsh grin on my face -- much like the one Sharpe gives after he kicks someone in the dick.

Thanks to Bean's sacrifice -- the sacrifice that he made for you and me at the cost of hundreds of his characters' lives and dignity -- he'll be able to be Sharpe forever. The first Sharpe TV film aired in 1993, but the most recent went on-screen in two thousand and eight. There are almost as many Sharpe films as there are Sharpe books, and a few of them aren't based on any of Cornwell's novels. It's just Sharpe, his loyal riflemen (one of them, his best friend and Sergeant Major Patrick Harper, is the only known survivor of a kick in the dick from Sharpe), Wellington, some idiot officers that he has to kill or allow to be killed, and a beautiful woman who is a) inexplicably in a war zone and b) not-so-inexplicably wants to sleep with Sharpe. That's all you need. Stick them in a Napoleonic-era conflict, add a few terrifying scars or facial tics to the villain of the month, and you've got a Sharpe film. It gives me a kind of comfort to know that long after you and I have transferred our brains into either robot bodies or sentient gaseous constructs, Sean Bean will continue to return to Flanders, Portugal, Spain, or somewhere else that's over the hills and far away. He'll return to kick dicks and chew bubblegum. And Wellington expressly forbids bubblegum.*

*This may or may not be true.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.