Young Sherlock Holmes

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.

30 thoughts on “Young Sherlock Holmes

  1. This is one I haven’t seen (perhaps more shockingly, never heard of) so I have downloaded from iTunes & shall watch it this weekend, then read your review & comment

      • Just finished watching! My God, those special effects scenes are terrifying, will take me a while before I can sit down to a roast chicken.
        I agree with most of your points Hadley; the similarities between YSH and Harry Potter are quite striking, and Elizabeth does come across as fairly bland and underwritten. I haven’t read much of the “Smurfette theory”, will remedy that promptly. I also wish they could have expanded on the Dudley storyline.
        I was glad I watched the full closing credits, it really does seem like they were setting up a sequel, would have been interesting to see where they would have taken it.
        Excited about next week! A Woody Allen film which I have not seen – for shame!
        Even more excited for the action movie trifecta; Eddie Murphy before the prosthetics, Mel Gibson before the disturbing rants, and Bruce…well, he always just seems to be Bruce!

  2. I love this one! Watched it dozens of times as a lad. I’ll be back with some more thoughts, but just a bit of trivia to start – I caught a documentary about Pixar recently and apparently Toy Story god John Lasseter cut his teeth on the special effects for this (specifically, the knight made of a stained glass window).

  3. It’s the playing with the characters and the in-jokes that I love so much about this film, be it the cape, or the acquisition of the hat and pipe, and the villainy was good too, even if the remarkably unegyptian egyptians are very regrettable. Totally agree that Elizabeth was too wet, perhaps going for a more Irene Adler-ish character would’ve worked better.

  4. You’re on the money in your first paragraph Hadley in terms of the timing of the film impacting on its success. This was the Brat Pack era so the combination of being a wee bit more cerebral and the lead being Nicholas Rowe (excellent performance but I doubt pictures of Nick’s face were adorning many girls’ walls alongside the Ralph Macchios of this world) meant it was always going to be an uphill struggle against its contemporaries with their easier accessiblity and better looking, groovier casts. This I reckon had as much, if not more, of an effect that its similarties to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A shame because as you say, it is a great film with some pretty frightening scenes. The Muppet Show was never the same after seeing Watson’s experience with the cream cakes. As much I enjoyed it though as a 10 year old, watching Young Sherlock Holmes did feel a bit like being taken by my parents for high tea on a Sunday as opposed to the local Wimpy. Both were delicious of course but don’t recall ever having exciting discussions on the former with my mates.

    • Perhaps although seeing as Benedict Cumberbatch is now a pin-up one should never underestimate teenage girls’ taste when it comes to potential pin-ups. And The Princess Bride didn’t have a groovy cast yet that was a big hit just two years later. Seems to me YSH just slipped through the cracks.

  5. What a vintage year 1985 was! I used to love this film, especially for the romance. I haven’t seen it in a long time, but have a feeling that one of the reasons I didn’t watch it more often was because it was so sad that Elizabeth died. Might you review Adventures in Babysitting too? I was MAD about that film, although suspect it might not have held up so well…

  6. Just looked up Murphy’s Romance, which I still really like (although sure you’ve got a massive list!) and see it was also 1985!

  7. Hadley,
    This blog rocks but I just have a few minor disagreements. First, Nicholas Rowe is far from “perfect”; he’s about as charismatic as Shia Labeouf. There’s nothing respectable about Chris Columbus – the man directed ‘Home Alone 2’ and ‘Nine Months’. Pauline Kael was right about almost everything 82% of the time.
    Future blog suggestion: ‘Throw Momma From the Train’?

    • But he’s perfect as young Sherlock, don’t you think? Just beginning to be damaged so as to become the weird adult he grows into. And as for Chris Columbus, he hadn’t done either of those films yet – those were all in the distant future. In the 80s, he made the Goonies, Gremlins, Adventures in Babysitting and this. In my eyes, that’s a pretty respectable list.

  8. Once again, Hadley, it appears that we park our cars in the same garage. I loved this at the time and still do, the scary bits are really scary (“She’s alive!!”), the nerdy detection stuff is satisfying and even the odd clunky line (“My god! It’s nearly half past 12”) is delivered with such enthusiasm you can’t help but love it.

    I too bemoan its relatively poor performance, box officewise. I thought the idea was that it’d be the start of a franchise (the possibly UK only title ‘Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear’ suggest so?) and I’d like to have seen more of the superbly rotten Raith/SPOILER ALERT Moriarty (“Let us tarry here a while longer while Elizabeth’s precious life blood drains from her body”).

    That said, however creatively you spell it I remain unconvinced that Raith is Atar backwards.

    • That’s a really good point: the title does suggest some hope for a sequel. I’d never thought about that – this makes it’s failure even more disappointing! And I also love how they speak the cliches with such gusto, with the English teenagers never seeming to wince at Chris Columbus’ attempts at Britishspeak.
      Also, am I the only one who thinks that Watson’s height changes in the film? He seems to go from half the size of Holmes to nearly Holmes’ equal in often neighbouring scenes.

  9. P.S. You may think that I’d have to look up those quotes, but I’m afraid I did not. Feel free to judge/pity me on that basis.

  10. Watched this for the first time tonight – god knows how it had escaped my radar first time round as I’d have been 14 at the time of its release – and found it very enjoyable. The special effects really were something else. Truly, they don’t make them like that any more. Those hallucination scenes will stay with me for a long time. Loved the score too.

    I think the lack of impact the cast made in later years is summed up by the fact that not one of them garners a mention anywhere on the film’s credits on the DVD cover. Actually, the only cast member I’d really known of before was the narrator Michael Hordern, and, having grown up accustomed to hearing his reassuring tones voicing the Paddington series on the BBC, I found it impossible not to think of the Peruvian bear with a predilection for marmalade sandwiches every time MH piped up as the older Watson!

    But yes, enjoyed this a lot. Cheers! By the way, another Adventures in Babysitting fan over here. Saw it again for the first time in aeons a few months ago not expecting it to hold up very well after so long, but was happy to discover it to be as enjoyable as ever. It has to be a Shue-in for a future Friday Film Club entry!

    • Hurrah! A new YSH fan, so pleased you enjoyed it. And excellent spot on the Paddington connection!
      That’s two votes for Adventures in Babysitting so we’ll definitely tackle that one sharpish. Incidentally, I watched Moonstruck last night for the first time in about 15 years and that one also holds up remarkably well. Perhaps we should have an Olympia Dukakis week?

      • Moonstruck is total bliss. Nicolas Cage’s finest hour, and so handsome… Also yes to Coreys double bill! And yes to finding another person apart from my mum who likes Murphy’s Romance!

  11. I haven’t seen this because I remember being completely terrified by having the entire plot described to me by a friend when I was at primary school not long after it came out. I’ll have to see whether I have recovered sufficiently to be able to watch it now, because it sounds great.

    I’m delighted that Hannah And Her Sisters is next – I absolutely love it, and it’s the perfect time of year to see it again.

    • Give it a go! It is surprisingly dark but totally worth it and not as scary as it seemed when you were seven.
      So pleased you’re a Hannah fan. I think it’s easily one of Woody’s absolute finest. Max von Sydow makes it a classic on his own.

  12. So pleased you enjoyed YSH, Amy, and still felt the thrill of the fear. That chicken scene turned a few kids into vegetarians, I bet.
    You have another treat in store if you haven’t seen Hannah – truly one of Woody’s absolute bests. And the boys on he beat week will be good, I hope, and we can all talk at length about what he hell happened to Judge Reinhold.

  13. Did love this at the time, if I remember rightly Brian Cox modelled his performance as Hannibal Lektor in Manhunter on his son, which is kinda creepy.

  14. I always meant to see this and even greater shame on me: I sent my photo and a letter to Spielberg’s Amblin’ Productions as one of the hopefuls to be the young Holmes or even the young Watson.

    I’m still waiting for Spielberg to call… The old young Sherlock Holmes, now there’s a half thought.

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