by Alexandre Paquin
Once upon a time, in this land of tinsel called "Hollywood", someone had the wisdom of saying: "Hey, I have an idea. Let's make another Indiana Jones flick. Full of adventure with a pyramid and Egyptian stuff. You know how much money was made with the Indiana Jones franchise, right? Only this time, we won't call him Indiana Jones. We'll call him Sherlock Holmes, and we'll set the story in Victorian London but that's going to work just the same. And to make sure nobody realizes the plot doesn't make sense or that our Sherlock Holmes is just an empty name, we'll fill the picture with special effects. So, whaddaya say?" Hollywood, being what it is, eagerly accepted, and thus was made "Young Sherlock Holmes" (1985).The character of Sherlock Holmes, ever since his first appearance in Dr. (later Sir) Arthur Conan Doyle's novella "A Study in Scarlet" in 1887, has been at the center of a number of writings, plays, and films, and most of these featured Holmes as we imagine him, complete with pipe, tweed overcoat, and deerstalker hat. Eventually, the character became so much known that there seemed to be no way in which the character and his world could be treated on the screen except as a parody. As early as 1956, actor Basil Rathbone, who had experienced fame as Holmes on the screen and on radio from 1939 to 1946, concluded in his autobiography In and Out of Character, that "the only possible medium still available to an acceptable present-day presentation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories would be a full-length Disney cartoon."
"Indiana Holmes and the Pyramid of Doom"
While Rathbone's prediction of a Disney cartoon would turn out to be true with the release of "The Great Mouse Detective" in 1986 (the mouse detective was appropriately named Basil), the popularity of the Granada Sherlock Holmes television series starring Jeremy Brett proved that it was still possible to successfully treat the Sherlockian canon in a serious manner -- even more serious than in the films in which Rathbone starred, which were vaguely derived from the original Holmes stories. However, Rathbone was right when he wrote that, in general, the Holmes films to come would have little to do with the original stories, or else be parodies of the material.
Considering only theatrical releases between 1970 and 1990, there have been at least seven Holmes films to be offered to moviegoers during these two decades:
"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" (1970);
"They Might Be Giants" (1972);
"The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" (1975);
"The Seven Per Cent Solution" (1976);
"Murder by Decree" (1979);
"Young Sherlock Holmes" (1985);
"Without a Clue" (1988).
All of these films on this list, including the first, which was directed by the excellent Billy Wilder ("The Lost Weekend", "Sunset Boulevard", "Witness for the Prosecution", "The Apartment"), were badly received by critics, and most were box-office disappointments. All were intended to be either parodies, pastiches, or revisionist accounts of the detective's world, and were not inspired by a Sherlock Holmes story.
"Young Sherlock Holmes" is no exception, and in spite of clinging to the formula as if it were a lifebelt, the film was a commercial disappointment.
"Young Sherlock Holmes" deals with the first meeting of Holmes and Watson in an English public school. Watson (Alan Cox), a newcomer at the school, is allotted the same room as returning student Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe). The two become friends, and Watson gradually learns more about his roommate's capacity for deduction. Holmes soon meets Elizabeth (Sophie Ward), whose grandfather, Waxflatter (Nigel Stock) is a retired professor living on the school grounds. However, a series of deaths of old men in strange circumstances strikes close to home with the apparent suicide of Waxflatter, who in fact was the victim of a hallucinogenic substance contained in a dart thrown at him with the help of a blowpipe. After retrieving the blowpipe (conveniently dropped by the murderer), Holmes discovers a hidden pyramid in the least reputable area of London, where abducted young women are burned alive with hot wax or oil by members of an ancient Egyptian sect called "Rametep". After escaping the pyramid, Holmes tries in vain to get the attention of Scotland Yard and of a young inspector named Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths). Holmes afterwards discovers a photograph showing all the murdered men together, along with a survivor. Holmes meets the last man, who tells him the entire story about an Egyptian curse plaguing the men of the group. Holmes soon discovers the identity of the main villain, only to realize that Elizabeth has been abducted by the Rametep -- and gallant and chivalrous as Holmes is, he sets out to rescue her.
From this script, it does not take long to realize that "Sherlock Holmes" is retained only as a name and not as a character. Obviously, we get the usual Sherlockiana: the "elementary" dialogue, the deerstalker hat, the pipe, the origin of his dressing style, an explanation for Holmes's later insensibility to women, his skill with the sword, having been trained by Rathe (Anthony Higgins), the school principal, the (invented) first meeting of Holmes and Watson, and the origin of the best-known villain in the writings of Conan Doyle. But all these clues are in fact just the red herrings which the real Holmes would have discarded at the beginning of any case. These obvious references to Holmes, of which there are too many, are all intentionally planted in the story to convince us that we are watching the great detective at work, yet this Holmes looks as Holmesian as Queen Victoria would have with a deerstalker hat and a pipe.
Perhaps this conclusion comes from the knowledge that Chris Columbus had written the screenplay for "The Goonies" earlier the same year. Perhaps this comes from the realization that the idea of having a secret Egyptian cult in London, and the final rescue in the pyramid, are all rather absurd, and certainly foreign to even Conan Doyle's most exotic writings. Even though the use of a hallucinogenic substance was chronicled in the Holmes story "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot", the rest of the plot is completely invented and not faithful to the characters or the story. But mostly, all this Holmesian hokum is revealed as such as soon one reads the name of Steven Spielberg as an executive producer. The reason for the obvious and entirely superfluous reference to "E.T." (involving Big Ben and one of Waxflatter's airplane prototypes) becomes clear, and it becomes entirely justified to believe that the title would have been more appropriate had it been "Indiana Holmes and the Pyramid of Doom".
The plot does have more than its share of problems. Consider, for example, the fact that we know from the beginning that it is a drug which distorts reality and forces the people who have been in contact with it to either kill themselves or become the victims of an accident. In the typical Holmes story, the reader would become aware of the facts at the same time as the detective does. The reader, from the same clues in the possession of the detective, must make his own deductions to come to a logical conclusion. The circumstances of the deaths were, in the Holmes stories, unusual, and a supernatural force often seemed the only explanation. Here, the clues are all given out in the most obvious manner, and why? For the sake of computer-created visual effects (so common today, but in 1985, they were a novelty), that simulate the hallucinations of the victims. These are well done (by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic), but undermine the entire plot, and the viewer is left chuckling as the protagonists are trying to make sense of all this. And unlike the plot from a "Columbo" episode, there is no interest in trying to guess how Holmes will find out, because the detective arrives at his conclusions almost as luckily as it is possible without having audiences laughing out loud or slapping their foreheads, and ultimately, Holmes's power of deduction has no importance on his solving the problem. And even though the identity of the culprit is hidden from the viewer until our hero Holmes discovers it, there is no real mystery to it, as there is such a dearth of suspects that any character who is not a protagonist or a victim and who has a significant role in the film must be the leader of the cult -- and as it turns out, there is only one such character. It is by no means a claustrophobic ("the murderer is in this room") Agatha Christie-like mystery involving such characters as the white-mustachioed Major recently back from India, the rich widow, the naive female movie star, the local doctor, the secretive young man, the American businessman, Lord Whatever, and his manservant that we are dealing with here. What we are dealing with is a one-suspect detective story -- or more precisely, a not-quite-exciting adventure yarn posing as one.
While there was very little to laugh about in the original stories, the Gothic element that made the original stories famous is almost completely absent in the film, and when there is an opportunity, it is continually overlooked, because of the desire to create a lighter atmosphere -- consider, for example, the character of Waxflatter, not too far removed from the "mad inventor" stereotype because of his idea of creating a flying machine, a few of the hallucinations (including one by Watson involving pastries), and the possibility of romance between Holmes and Elizabeth. On the other hand, there are some darker moments, which are sometimes hair-raising, but in spite of some very inspired sets that remind one of the works of Charles Dickens (for example the dark streets and the cemetery) and help create a splendid Victorian atmosphere and a score by Bruce Broughton which appropriately borrows much from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, there are very few truly horrific sequences, with the exception of the cult meetings, because the film has an air of déjà vu, with the material done in a lighter tone elsewhere, and because no member of the cast seems to be having any interest in their parts or the story -- one is led to believe, not without reason.Fans of the legendary detective will become disappointed with "Young Sherlock Holmes" as soon as they realize that the character is merely an excuse for another entirely commercial and thinly-plotted adventure story done in an unimaginative formula which would become the trademark of Columbus and Spielberg, with wooden acting throughout providing an additional irritant, and even though the ending provides a few surprises, it is a long and cliché-ridden road before getting there.
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originally posted: 12/12/01 06:27:46