By Dr. Craig D. Reid
Growing up in England and reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories on Sherlock Holmes, scanning 1960’s English comic books featuring Holmes-influenced characters, and watching the eloquently shrouded Holmes on umpteen TV shows and films, one can become attached to the Holmes that was.
So comparing the true Victorian Holmes created by a storyteller who lived during Victorian times director Guy Ritchie’s shaped Holmes portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the contemporary-stilted Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, it harkens to contrasting the early Dr. Who portrayals by William Hartnell and Tom Baker (1963-1981) to the subsequent Dr. Who incarnations currently Tardis trapped by 2011’s Matt Smith. As a traditionalist, I lean toward the originals, because those visions reflect an honesty of creation and character over glitz and glamour, without appeasing the convictions of the self and bowing to the weakness of ego.
Perhaps part of this contemporary shtick, a Holmes wrapped in scruff, filth and addiction, was Downey openly flaunting that part of this new spirit where Holmes and Watson are indeed more than flat mates or bosom buddies as their relationship hinges on hints of homosexuality where a “Holmes” run exudes something rather completely un-Victorian.
In the first installment, Sherlock Holmes (2009), the cinematic clues are hidden within the riddled words of the gypsy soothsayer that ruminates to Watson and Holmes in a desolate back street of London. Yet in the latest installment, A Game of Shadows, a tarot reading gypsy has changed into a pseudo-major character as the overt humor of the male-male double entendre is more blatant and obvious than Kareem Abdul Jabbar playing basketball against a team of Wizard of Oz munchkins.
The story opens shortly after the previous film ends, where Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is seemingly working on his own, perhaps relegated to losing his man friend Watson (Jude Law) to, according to Holmes, the entrapment of marriage, has OCD’ed himself into investigating a menagerie of disconnected homicides, a bunch of bloodthirsty bombing and a host of natural deaths, convinced to be the work of Holmes’ intellectual yet dastardly equal Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris).
Something is afoot, and refusing to be de-feeted, Holmes charms Watson to his side one last time as they team up with a band of gypsies headed by Madame Simza (Noomie Rapace) to save Europe and the free world as we know it from the war mongering claws of Moriarty.
Although the look of the film captures the grittiness of pre-WW I Europe, Downey’s continues his new fangled portrayal of Holmes, a leaning inspired by the creative difference Heath Ledger infused into his Joker character in Dark Knight. Not that Downey acted like Ledger, but he tried to instill a novel persona into a traditional, Victorian-English Holmes. With the addition of Downey’s new brazen, impertinent and abrasively jealous Holmes, gone are his patented deerstalker cap, Inverness cape and U-shaped smoking pipe. Also missing is Holmes’s signature quote, “Elementary my dear Watson.” At least Downey’s English accent was superior to Kevin Kostner’s Robin Hood Nottingham lilt in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (1991).
However, there is an interesting novel approach in this Ritchie’s Holmes that does exist within the literature but has rarely been fleshed out in any great detail. Besides being a habitual cocaine user, Conan Doyle’s Holmes was a practitioner of a mystical fighting art that was introduced in The Adventure of the Empty House, which was part of a 13 story series penned between 1903-1904. In this particular story Holmes kills his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty using a self-defense system known as baritsu to throw him over Reichenbach Falls.
After the fall of the Tokugawa Shogun, Emperor Meiji opened Japan’s door to Western science, technology and military weapons during a period of Japan’s history known as the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). Baritsu is a martial art created in 1898 by Edward William Barton-Wright, who was a British engineer who lived in Japan for three years during the Meiji Restoration. Barton-Wright studied jujitsu and upon his return to England presented his knowledge as a new self defense system named partially after his Barton namesake and after jujitsu, thus “bartitsu,” later shortened in the press to baritsu by way of a reporter’s misspelling of the art.
Apparently Conan Doyle was so enamored by the fighting art, that he made Holmes a practitioner of the art. However, the self defence style’s name might be misleading as Barton-Wright also studied judo under that art’s founder Jigoro Kano, and further incorprated into baritsu French foot fighting, English style boxing, the use of coat as a self defense weapon, and La Canne; a walking-stick fighting method created by famous Swiss fencer Pierre Vigny.
Thus, anyone who knows the aforementioned piece of Moriarty/Holmes lore also knows where A Game of Shadows is heading. Yet it’s the madcap adventure of gallivanting across pre-World War I Europe that makes this film pure golden magic, as Holmes uses his smarts, powers of deduction, martial forethought and baritsu against a London street gang hit squad, a parkour (street running) Cossack assassin, a hook that makes Holmes feel like a slaughtered animal, the best sniper in the British Army, squads of killers loyal to the German Kaiser, and heavy artillery ending with the expected mayhem of a mano-a-mano match with Moriarty.
Of note, Conan-Doyle also subliminally added in something very Asian into his original Holmes character that is the foundation for the calm that characterized the suave Holmes demeanor. It is rooted and hidden in Conan Doyle’s interest in the mysticism of India, specifically the meditative sound of “ohm.” The Cockney accent of East London would pronounce “Holmes” without the “H,” thereby calling the centered detective “Olmes.” How incredible is it that Asian mysticism has been alive and well in Victorian England since 1887, the year the first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet was published.