Young Sherlock Holmes is such an excellent film and that is why watching it always makes me feel a little sad. This movie deserves to be more than the cult classic it has – at best – become and the young stars, all of whom are excellent in this, should have achieved a career boost of the kind gifted to their contemporaries who were starring in films – in some cases, far less clever films – that were released in the same era. Back to the Future, St Elmo’s Fire, Teen Wolf, Weird Science, A Room with a View, The Breakfast Club and Goonies all came out in 1985, the same year as Young Sherlock Holmes, and all made stars out of their unknown leading actors. But the highest post-Sherlock peak achieved by Nicholas Rowe (Holmes), Alan Cox (Watson) and Sophie Ward (Elizabeth) was Rowe’s appearance as the plummy stoner in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, while Cox (who is Brian Cox’s son, incidentally, and just adorable here in his tweed three piece suit) and Ward have remained mired in mini-series and TV movie hell. Rowe – who is perfect in this film – truly deserved bigger things than playing a posho for Guy Ritchie: OK, he is not so good at faking laughter (“Ha ha Watson you fool”) but he could have been the new Richard E Grant, and quite possibly an improvement on the original version. It is almost heartbreaking to watch the young actors in this film and think how excited they must have been at the time, how, at the ages of 19 (Rowe), 15 (Cox) and 21 (Ward) they must have assumed they were on the brink of something great when really they were peaking into obscurity.
Like so many great 80s films, this one starred unknowns but had trusted hands behind the camera, in this case the very respectable trinity of Chris Columbus (screenwriter, fresh from writing Gremlins and The Goonies), Barry Levinson (director, who had recently directed one of the greatest and most influential 80s films, Diner) and Amblin Entertainment, aka Steven Spielberg, whose name opens the credits. As one would expect from a Spielberg branded film, the special effects are unforgettable: of all the hallucination scenes, Watson’s will always be my favourite, and the sight of the angry cream horns shoving themselves into his mouth is as hilariously horrifying today as it was when first saw it at the age of seven, if – now seen through older, filthier eyes – more bizarrely phallic and orally rapey than I remembered. But it’s the scene when the stained glass knight comes alive that really takes the non-hallucinatory demonic cake. It can easily hold its own among the best special effects in the whole decade, and the 80s produced some of the best special effects of all time.
It also, incidentally, combines and even anticipates two of the biggest film franchises of all time. One of these is, of course, Harry Potter: two boys and one girl, stuck in a British boarding school and solving mysteries together, faced with an evil blond boy as their schoolyard nemesis. Dudley looks especially Draco Malfoy-ish after Holmes poisons him into albinism, although unlike with Draco and Harry, it’s never entirely clear why Dudley hates Holmes so much he had him expelled. Romantic jealousy? Intellectual competitiveness? The film never bothers to explain and never really bothers with Dudley himself, casting him off halfway through the movie. As for the other franchise the film echoes, well, we’ll get to that in a tick.
Columbus clearly had a ball playing with an established set of characters, using just enough in-jokes to keep Arthur Conan Doyle fans amused and incorporating them so smoothly that you hardly notice the winks at the audience (having Holmes’ famous cape cloak come from Rathe is a particularly clever touch) and pulling off the British dialogue with skill (“Are you the owner of this establishment?”) Sherlock Holmes fared well in the 80s: not only was there Young Sherlock Holmes but just four years later the highly, highly recommended Without a Clue was released. Without wishing to offend any Cumberbitches out there, these smart and irreverent takes on the doctor strike me as much more fun than the more po-faced literal versions seen today on today with the BBC series and CBS’ Elementary.
Levinson was palpably besotted by the Englishness of his story, lingering lovingly over the cobbled courtyard and snowy towers of what was actually Eton College with a case of American Anglophila not seen again for another decade until Brian Henson made The Muppet Christmas Carol.
The mystery is genuinely quite scary (they boil girls alive! That nurse is freaking terrifying!) and the movie plunges right into it, kicking off with a spooky scene that could rival Ghostbusters’ famous ghost-in-the-library opener. It combines adventure, mystery, comedy, English boarding school larkiness, truly moving romance (I don’t care what anyone says, I still think that moment when Holmes looks out the window, sees Elizabeth and murmurs to himself, “I don’t ever want to be alone” is genuinely quite heartbreaking), and one of the best drowning scenes ever, with Rathe’s hand making a proper claw shape as it slides beneath the icy surface. Heck, Henry Winkler was the producer. So how on earth can such a fine Fonz-produced film flop?
I suspect for one very big reason: Indiana Jones killed Sherlock Holmes.
Not even the most devoted fan of Young Sherlock Holmes can deny that there are some remarkable similarities between this film and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which, rather unfortunately for Sherlock and the gang, came out just the year before. The temple scenes in the two films are so reminiscent of one another (and both superior to anything in 1999’s The Mummy) that it’s amazing Spielberg didn’t sue himself for plagiarism. (Similarly, one can only wonder how much inspiration Columbus took from Young Sherlock Holmes when he worked as producer and director on the early Harry Potter films.) There was no way a small film like Young Sherlock Holmes could compete with an already established franchise like Indiana Jones and so it was lost in the shadows.
The echoes of Indy aren’t Young Sherlock Holmes’ only problems. Pauline Kael complained in particular about the lameness of the backstory (the old men were building a hotel? Or something?), and this is one of the rare instances when I agree with her. I must have seen this film 1287 times and I still have yet to follow Chester Cragwitch’s explanatory tale without drifting off. This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker – there are some bits of Ghostbusters that I’ll probably never be clear on – but it definitely helps if a movie’s MacGuffin is memorable and straightforward, whether it’s the pursuit of a holy stone in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or the pursuit of a best friend in trouble in Adventures in Babysitting, which was, as chance would have it, made by Columbus just two years later.
Young Sherlock Holmes is also an excellent example of the racial blindness and / or stupidity that afflicted many movies in this decade. The idea that Rathe and Mrs Dibbs could be, with just a bit of bad foundation on their cheeks, Egyptian pretty much sums up the attitude of too many 80s films to race. It’s not as bad as C Thomas Howell blacking up in the now unwatchable Soul Man, of course – just naïve and oddly ignorant.
The narrator, too, is a little problematic. I understand why Levinson and Columbus felt they had to include this Wonder Years-style “oh, those were the best days of my life!” retrospective voiceover, never letting the audience forget who these boys grew up to be and therefore making their adventures seem even more momentous. But Levinson is so good at explaining things with pictures that the words often feel unnecessary, especially when said with the chortling sentimentality that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Werther’s Originals advert.
But all of this is just nitpicking. My only real problem with Young Sherlock Holmes is that it falls foul of the Smurfette Principle. This excellent term, coined by the marvellous feminist writer Katha Pollitt, refers to the all too common phenomenon in pop culture of, as Pollitt put it, “a group of male buddies accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined.” Distressing examples of the Smurfette Principle include Star Wars, The Princess Bride and even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Young Sherlock Holmes is, I’m sorry to say, another classic example and, my goodness, Elizabeth is a bit of a wet character; it is to Ward’s immense credit that she isn’t entirely insufferable. She is given no discernible personality other than to smile chastely at Holmes and cuddle her dog; she is so devoid of an inner life that she doesn’t even seem that upset when her only relative dies a brutal and tragic death. She serves absolutely no function whatsoever other than to be saved by Holmes and then to die saving him. She’s like a dreary Dickens heroine and, like a Dickens heroine, she does get a good death scene. But when that’s the most you can say about a female character, you know that the movie is not what one can call a feminist classic. This is not a crime, yet it is an infraction but when it comes to Young Sherlock Holmes, to be honest, I can forgive much.
Some movies are unfairly remembered (Mannequin, Mannequin, Mannequin); this one was unfairly overlooked, murdered before its time by an American professor of archaeology who named himself after his dog. Young Sherlock Holmes should be better remembered: it is proof that, to quote another great 80s movie, life is pain.
Next week: Hannah and her Sisters
Advance warning: the week after will be bros on the beat – Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard. So gird your eyes for a proper film binge.