Every audience gets the Holmes movie of its time. William Gillette was the first big Sherlock Holmes stage star. His audiences in 1899 wanted melodrama with a love interest and that is what they got. Eille Norwood was the first big silent movie Holmes. He made 47 movies, each about 25 minutes long. He was a favorite of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his movies had action and lots of disguises. Holmes and Watson really came into their own when the movies got a voice. Arthur Wontner was an English actor who made 5 movies in Great Britain in the 1930s. More than any other actor, he looked the most like Sherlock Holmes.
Except for Gillette, all those movies had been filmed in “the present day” which was frankly a lot cheaper than presenting the movies in the “Victorian era”. There were still Victorian elements in each movie, mostly embodied in Holmes and Watson’s dress and attitude toward crime and women. Basil Rathbone’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES movies were the first in a long time to be filmed in the correct historic period. When Universal Studios made its series of 12 films with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, in order to hold the public’s interest and keep Holmes relevant to the real world (they were out to make money, after all) the scenes were updated to current times (the 1940s). Holmes was pitted against Nazis for the first 3 movies, as any good Englishman would be at the beginning of World War II. Widely distributed in cinemas and later on television, those performances became the norm for decades.
Various Sherlock Holmes radio shows broadcasted world-wide for decades. Television rose in popularity in the ’fifties and ’sixties and Holmes TV series were aired in several countries. Two starred Ronald Howard and Peter Cushing. These were usually set in Victorian times and centered, like the radio plays, more on action with a large dollop of deduction in every episode.
In 1970 the interest in Holmes and Watson was great enough for the famous Hollywood director Billy Wilder to make the film THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.
A "Jack the Ripper vs. Sherlock Holmes" film, A STUDY IN TERROR, was made in 1965. Another, "MURDER BY DECREE',came out in 1979. They emphasized horror and in each Sherlock Holmes was more physical than one might expect. A broad comedy called “WITHOUT A CLUE” was made in 1988. In the ten years between 1984 -1994 British Television gave us Jeremy Brett and the high standards of the Granada studios. Widely seen throughout the world, those episodes set the standard of fidelity to the original stories.
Ever since the first big BATMAN movie, big blockbusters with loads of action and computer-generated effects have made the most money in the movie theaters. LORD OF THE RINGS, HARRY POTTER, IRONMAN and SPIDERMAN are examples. They made the most money because audiences raised on video games and fast action wanted those kinds of movies. When someone realized at last that Holmes and Watson had great possibilities (plus the added advantage of being ‘literary’) it was inevitable that the producers would decide to go big, use computers, and put Holmes in the Victoria era again. Robert Downing, Jr. is a big movie name. He got the big movie treatment and audiences got the kind of big special-effects movie they had come to expect.
I had never seen a Guy Richie movie before SHERLOCK HOLMES. Robert Downing, Jr. was not my idea of Holmes physically, looking nothing like Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett. He didn’t fit the written description by Doyle either. But the man can act. His Holmes, researched with the help of an eminent Sherlockian, Les Klinger, is grittier and more active than the previous portrayals. The movie displayed Holmes’ cold mind, yet showed him vulnerable and human. Watson’s loyalty is understandable.
Dr. Watson, by Jude Law, is more active than previous depictions but closer to the original as written by Doyle. Lulled by former producers’ decisions to “dumb down” Watson in order to emphasize Holmes’ brilliance, movie audiences forget that John H. Watson was a trained doctor and an experienced war veteran. He loved excitement and in the movie Holmes played on his almost physical need for it. Yet Watson was respectable enough to fall in love with Mary Morstan and yearn for a “normal” life of hearth and home, with a practice that would not be interrupted by gunfire, upsetting patients who might decide to switch to a more conventional physician.
The storyline played on the superstitions and interest in the paranormal that was rife during the time period of the movie. It also tied in to Doyle, who soon after the 1890s became the most famous Spiritualist of his generation. It also battered against Holmes’ rationality. If there was one man in the Empire who didn’t believe in spooks, it was Sherlock Holmes. And he could tell you why. Therefore he was the one man in the Empire who could defeat the fear and uncover the tricks.
Don’t take all your Holmes from the movies. The real Sherlock Holmes is in the written stories. Over the decades in the films, Holmes has come in all shapes and sizes. He has appeared as a calculating machine and an action hero. The important thing to remember is that he is the world’s greatest detective and Watson’s friend. As long as those two elements are present, any movie about Sherlock Holmes does his creator and his fans proud.