Feb 07th “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
In light of the Indiana Jones movies, two of which came before this one, it seemed that any Steven Spielberg led vehicle would be steered into the direction of formula. What works in the present for other things that are from the past. Exciting ideas for bringing to life the spirit of adventure was at the heart of movies for young minds throughout the 80s. That spirit changed as special effects became more profound. Films like Return to Oz, Labyrinth and even Ghostbusters all brought together frightening images and made them a part of our 80s childhood, but Sherlock Holmes was never one that we expected. Most of the ideas that came out of the 80s were original, one-off hits.
Sherlock Holmes was literature for adults, and had no relevance for the younger market. But Spielberg was intrigued enough to let this film happen. Maybe because he already had in mind, the young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and needed to see if similar ideas would sink or swim. This film was a perfect launch pad to test the waters, and to see what could be done.
The early 80s were a dark and yet wondrous time for the childhood movie going experience. With entries such as Return to Oz, Gremlins, The Dark Crystal and Goonies, fantasy led us down some challenging paths. With the occasional blows of reality came emotional highs and low with The Journey of Natty Gann, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Labyrinth and The Never-ending Story. The idea of bringing Sherlock Holmes into the mix seemed to be something of a reach. Older teenagers had been on a thrill ride with Goonies and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it seemed fitting that they were ready for an origin story involving one of the greatest, intellectual minds in literary history.
Or were they?
The story puts Sherlock (played by Nicholas Rowe) at the most critical time of his life: adolescence. As a pupil at a boarding school in London, he has already carved something of a reputation for intuition and deduction. Fellow school pupils appear to idolise him and even though some antagonise him with the challenge that threatens to break him. Regardless, everybody seems to get on like the hallucination of a house on fire. The school of hard knocks must be elsewhere as here, the Dickensian brightest scamper about the snowy grounds with leaps of enthusiasm and tolerance.
Watson (played by Alan Cox — incidentally the son of actor Brian Cox) meets Sherlock but straight away, they seem like they are old friends. As he is a genius mind wrapped up in a boy’s only school, there is a girl whom he has fallen for. Elizabeth Hardy (played by Sophie Ward) is present and also very much an outsider looking in.
When perfectly sane men start to die under crazed circumstances, Sherlock Holmes becomes determined to solve the crime. It seems that a hooded field is working through a specific list of people, using a blow dart to deliver hallucinogenic substances that mess with the minds. With each case, the victim finds his own way to certain death. One falls out of a window, and a horse and carriage trample another. You get the picture. It seems the act of murder is not direct. More the victim is lured to his own fate.
This is not just a platform film to showcase Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual ingenuity. There are heroics involved that are directly influenced by the action adventure sagas that dominated the industry. He is a swashbuckler, he is a lover who swings in to save the day. Well… in his way.
Barry Levinson had only been in the business of directing for three years, having garnered a taste for it having written several critically acclaimed screenplays that included And Justice For All and Tootsie (although his participation for the latter was uncredited.)
Levinson at this time was very comfortable in period specific settings, having gone back to the late fifties in Diner, and then in the early 1910s to the 1930s in The Natural. But those were American movies, with things that were influenced by his own upbringing. The Young Sherlock Holmes story was Dickensian, set in England, but that’s never a problem when it comes to delegating to those who would ensure its authenticity.
Levinson was indeed very aware of the lore of Sherlock Holmes, and also, how deep the following would be for readers of the Holmes series. This wasn’t necessarily a film for the fans, but Levinson wasn’t about to knowingly alienate an entire fandom. Chris Columbus penned the screenplay — having been a bankable adventure storywriter with Gremlins and Goonies. But the issue would be that neither director nor its writer were familiar enough with the iconic look of Victorian England, nor were they versed enough to deliver very specific English lines of dialogue.
These fears of authenticity were soon washed away once Steven Spielberg came onboard as an executive producer, and with that came the addition of two script advisors: John Bennett Shaw added the “Sherlokian” nuance, and Jeffery Archer anglicized the flavour of the language.
Naturally, once Steven Spielberg’s name was attached, it seemed very hard for others to shine. Once released, The Young Sherlock Holmes was pushed with Steven Spielberg as the designated driver. With all the turmoil of director ownership that ended the new wave era of cinema, Spielberg and others like him made their push to being studio giants that appeared to be there more for their fellow directing peers than studios seemed to be. Directors like Robert Zemeckis and Joe Dante were two notable directors who often travelled with the security of the Spielberg name to many of their future works. In a way, it was necessary to maximise a film’s potential by utilising this trickery of their own.
Some films like The Money Pit (a mess of a movie on many levels), and Batteries Not Included (sentimental schlock on surface levels), and Joe Versus the Volcano (actually good, with lots of tone shifts) might not have done very well at all if the magic if Spielberg’s name wasn’t prominent on the poster.
Written by: Stephen Radford