Looking back at Young Sherlock Holmes

The 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes was sadly overlooked on released, so isn’t it time we rediscovered it? Michael takes a look back…

It doesn’t take any great detective skills to work out that we’re in the middle of a Sherlock Holmes renaissance. Guy Ritchie’s kinetic, stylised take has yielded two blockbuster movies with a third in the pipeline. On the small screen, a transatlantic duel is being fought between two modern versions, the BBC’s Sherlock featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, and the new US series Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.

Holmes and his world were key elements in Alan Moore’s comics The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, while Hugh Laurie’s irascible-but-brilliant Dr Gregory House bore an entirely intentional resemblance to Baker Street’s ‘consulting detective’. It seems that right now, you could put a dog in a deerstalker and guarantee yourself a hit.

It hasn’t always been so. Although Holmes has been an almost constant presence in popular culture since his first appearance in 1887, his hit-making ability has waxed and waned. Never was this so evident as in Barry Levinson’s revisionist 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes. Despite earning some very good reviews, it lacked sufficient power at the box office, grossing just under $20m from a budget of $18m, thwarting any plans for a sequel.

This is a shame, as founding a series was very evidently the filmmakers’ intention. Its original title, Young Sherlock Holmes And The Pyramid Of Fear (used for the film’s British release), follows the standard franchise format, lending itself to further adventures. The key elements of the characters absent from the start of the film have been introduced by its end, and there’s even a teasing post-credits sequence featuring who else but Professor Moriarty (a late reveal emulated by both Ritchie and Moffatt and Gatiss).

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The reasons for the film’s relative failure would tax even the great powers of its hero. Holmes himself was still rather popular in 1985, at least in Britain, where the Jeremy Brett version was enjoying huge success on ITV. On the silver screen, the best model for success was Indiana Jones, another Amblin Entertainment product. Indeed, Young Sherlock Holmes is almost Temple Of Doom for kids, offering an only very slightly lighter take on murderous cults, sacrifice and horror. Even the plot trajectory would be familiar to Jones fans, as Holmes takes his audience on a fantastic leap from dusty academia to exotic peril.

However, the strongest parallels are with a media franchise that didn’t even exist at the time the film was made: Harry Potter. Although the director of the first two Potter films, Chris Columbus, penned Young Sherlock Holmes, there are so many links that it is barely conceivable that some of it hadn’t filtered into the mind of JK Rowling even before she finished the first novel.

Holmes and Potter both feature a central trio of two boys and a girl (if you squint a bit, they almost even look alike), though their characteristics are not evenly spread. Holmes contains elements of Harry’s starry destiny and Hermione’s smart-alec knowingness. Watson, whose glasses and mop of dark hair make him resemble Harry, shares the boy wizard’s position as the new kid in school. We learn about Brompton through him, just as we do Hogwarts through Harry. He also reminds the viewer a little of Ron, with a good heart beating between the clumsy exterior and a genuine love for his exalted pal. Only Elizabeth Hardy, an original character who makes up the final third of Young Sherlock Holmes’ central group, lacks any crossover. More on her later. 

The film also shares Potter’s primary setting, a Tom Brown’s Schooldays-esque boarding school, which, like Hogwarts, is presented as a place for japery as much as education. The masters, barring one notable exception, seem unable to fully control their spirited charges, and so indulge them instead. The dining room scene is strongly reminiscent of Potter, while in place of Quidditch we have fencing.

Holmes even has his own Draco Malfoy in the shape of fellow pupil Dudley who, like Malfoy with Potter, provides the beta enemy for our hero before he gets to tackle the Big Bad. Dudley is wonderfully played by Earl Rhodes, who gives the character a delicious sliminess and smirking pompous arrogance. The character is spot on, and Holmes’ besting of him is no less satisfying for being inevitable.

The film’s SFX also provides another precedent for the films of today. In an early sequence, a stained glass knight leaps from a window to threaten an old vicar. Although some of the SFX look dated they remain as scary as intended. The Glass Knight, however, stands out. Accompanied by a spine-tingling noise of shattering glass, it exudes menace. The animation bears a Pixar-like attention to detail, especially when we see it from the back, its scowling face reversed, window-like on the other side. The Glass Knight was the first entirely CGI character to appear in a film, well over a decade before they became all but standard. Its animator? One John Lasseter. Yep, the Pixar guy.

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All legacies aside, the film stands up on its own merits. It is a rollicking good adventure, almost custom-designed for cosy winter afternoons. It uses its Victorian setting well, offering a familiar concoction of gothic architecture, horse-drawn carriages and bewhiskered men rushing about in the snow. But for all this it avoids the sentimentalist, schmaltzy trap of adding a Christmas scene or any heartfelt rescue of poor urchins and little matchgirls.

It borrows instead from the seamier side of Victoriana, particularly the East End orientalism that will be familiar to readers of Dorian Gray and the Fu Manchu stories of Sax Rohmer. The plot, which centres on an Osiris-worshipping cult and a series of hallucinogenic murder-suicides, could have been torn straight from the pages of Conan Doyle himself. Indeed, there are more than a few hints of A Study In Scarlet and The Sign Of The Four. It is enough to sustain the film’s length and is a solid framework on which to build the movie’s chief concerns: enjoying its setting and building its characters.

It is, definitively, an origins story. We’re here to see how Sherlock Holmes, odd-named schoolboy became Sherlock Holmes the Consulting Detective. Much of what makes Sherlock Sherlock is already in place. He is aloof, vain, arrogant, petulant and brilliant. His very first appearance demonstrates his frustration at not having mastered the violin within three days. Watson, his trunk still unopened, steps in immediately to temper the boy’s anger, sowing the seeds of their partnership.

We are then treated to the famous Sherlock Scan, in which Holmes demonstrates his talent by deducing Watson’s name, history and fondness for custard tarts with a simple glance. We later learn that Holmes is not only renowned for his deductive brilliance within the school, but also that he has already invested much time in harassing Lestrade of the Yard (at this point still a humble sergeant) on some of the more juicy criminal cases of the day.

What Holmes lacks, and what we must watch him acquire, is the driven attitude and emotional repression that would help make him great. The young Holmes has a trace of the soppy romantic, all but absent from other interpretations of the character. He lets his emotions cloud his judgment in fencing matches, and is counselled against this by his fencing master Rathe. More important still is his love for Elizabeth, the niece of the school’s pet eccentric Waxflatter.

Elizabeth, one of only two female characters with any real dialogue, is woefully underused. Her entire purpose is to act as a foil for Holmes’ emotions and as the motive for his abandoning of them. She is no Irene Adler or Hermione Granger. Plotwise, she does little else but give Holmes a damsel to remove from distress. He is almost good enough to save her. Almost. When she jumps in front of a bullet for him, she unwittingly provides a perfect metaphor for her role, a human sacrifice to ensure that Holmes the boy becomes Holmes the man that we know. It is a real shame that more could not be done with her.

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Watson is a milder disappointment. Drawn squarely from the Nigel Bruce ‘nervous buffoon’ school of Watsons, Alan Cox’s aspirant doctor is drawn into Holmes’ adventures almost unwillingly, but with a constant compulsion to follow his heroic friend. Despite gaining a valued partner, Holmes seems to learn little from his tubby companion. If, contra Conan Doyle, the pair of them are to meet in their formative years, it would have been nice to see more of Watson rub off on Holmes. None of this is to the detriment of Alan Cox, who plays Watson with spirit and warmth.

The supporting cast, absent of any canonical necessity, are much better. The collection of misfit teachers are prime boarding school material, dusty and out of touch, but just distinct from one another to make sense. The one exception, Rathe, who may as well be wearing a t-shirt saying ‘If This Was an Episode of Scooby-Doo, I’d be the Janitor’, is very good in the role of mentor-cum-enemy and a superb foil for the boy detective.

Still, it is Holmes’ film and Nicholas Rowe delights in it. He carries a great physical resemblance to the popular image of Holmes, particularly in profile (put to excellent use in a scene at the film’s climax). He strides about with panache, leaving a trail of bewildered pupils, teachers and policemen in his wake. His Holmes is a joy to watch, even as he flaunts some of Holmes’ less pleasant traits.

If Rowe makes for a wonderful Holmes, he is helped no end by the script’s peppering of Sherlock references. As with the Cumberbatch version, the joy for fans of the original comes from spotting the details, large and small, that form the canon of Sherlockiana. No Baker Street here, or its Irregulars, but Lestrade makes an appearance, as do the catchphrases ‘the game is afoot’ and ‘elementary’. There’s even a passing mention of Mycroft, Sherlock’s elder, and even more intelligent, brother.

Best of all is the explanations for Sherlock’s deerstalker, Inverness cape and pipe. This last item may be quite jarring to modern audiences as the schoolboys Watson and Holmes both make references to learning to smoke. Contrast this with the abstemious wearing of nicotine patches by Cumberbatch, who at least has the excuse of playing Holmes as an adult.

By the end, Holmes has become the character we know. His shedding of emotional ties is done well, with his defeat of his old master, but more poignantly through the eyes of Watson. He tells us that he only saw Holmes cry twice in his life. Both occasions take place in the film, with the implication that no more would Holmes allow emotion to obscure his superhuman talents.

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He finishes the film ready for new adventures. It’s just a shame they never happened.

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