Friday, January 1, 2010

Sherlock Holmes -- Martial Artist

Having seen "Sherlock Holmes" a second time, I feel more compelled to comment on the martial arts presented in the film.

In the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Empty House" (1901), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes about Holmes's martial arts knowledge by having him refer to "baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling".
However, there is not and never has been any real martial art named "baritsu". The name is in fact based on a British martial system named Bartitsu. This style was developed at the turn of the last century by E.W. Barton-Wright. Barton-Wright had spent some time in Japan and learned a bit of Jujitsu and Judo. He was also an exponent of stick fighting, boxing, and Savate. Because of his wide knowledge base, Barton-Wright is considered to be far ahead of his time in terms of mixing martial arts styles in order to create a more effective fighting system (however, it should be remembered that there was a time before systematization ruled, and the old masters were knowledgeable in all basic martial concepts).

While in the film Downey's character does demonstrate a variety of martial capabilities, the word "baritsu" is never mentioned, and the fighting style the great detective utilizes appears to be much more akin to Wing Chun than anything else (in fact, a Wing Chun wooden dummy can be seen in the apartment at 221b Baker Street). This is most likely due to Robert Downey, Jr.'s real-life practice of the Chinese style. Downey likes to mention and demonstrate his love for the system to many interviewers, and he even gives his martial arts practice some credit for his recovery from drug addiction.

Holmes uses similar poses and the vertical fist espoused in Wing Chun. To be fair, though, he also uses some Jujitsu, boxing, stick fighting, and all-around dirty fighting. His fighting ability comes in quite handy when doing battle with the criminal element. He also likes to blow off steam and practice his technique by participating in bare-knuckle fights at a bar called the Punchbowl.

Jude Law's Dr. John Watson fights rather differently, however. While Holmes takes some time to mentally calculate his strikes and their damages, Watson just goes at it. He just hits anyone and everyone with anything in reach, including but not limited to his sword-cane. This could be because Watson is not such a calculating fellow, and is an ex-soldier (in my personal experience, military men tend to brawl rather than calculate).

The fights are interesting and fun to watch in the film. I think that they demonstrate a great blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writings, director Guy Ritchie's love of Karate and Jujitsu, Robert Downey, Jr.'s love of Wing Chun, and just plain good characterization and visual acumen.

(Most of this stuff was from my own observation/general knowledge, but some additional info came from some interviews on Aint It Cool News and stuff from Kung Fu Magazine [and, of course, Wikipedia].)


Tony Wolf said...

There's an interview with the SH fight choreographer at

M.C. Elroy said...

Thank you very much for pointing out that interview. Interesting read.

LNK said...

Hey, I've also seen the movie twice. I practice ninjutsu and everyone in my dojo believe that's the martial art Holmes utilizes. Maybe it is related to jujutsu, right? because from the vertical fist to the front kick to the ribs, it looks like what we do. Also, I don't really see how it could be wing chun (though I barely know a thing about it, I've just seen it in Ip Man--fantastic movie). Maybe you can explain that to me.
Anyways, your blog is really cool, and I'll keep reading it :)

M.C. Elroy said...

While all striking arts share some universal similarities, I would not mistake what Holmes does for taijutsu (the name for the empty-hand fighting aspect of ninjutsu). His blocking style and punches to the face are trademarks of Wing Chun. Also, as stated, Robert Downey, Jr. IS a Wing Chun practitioner. In fact, one of the coordinators for the film was Downey's sifu (teacher).

While I enjoyed "Ip Man", it was not all that historically accurate. Nor was it necessarily the most accurate representation of Wing Chun. If you want to see what Wing Chun is like, I suggest Bruce Lee's book "Chinese Gung Fu: Philosophical Art of Self-Defense". Also, check out the Fight Quest episode on youtube (look up Fight Quest Wing Chun).

(Unfortunately, "Ninjutsu" is one of the more commonly misappropriated terms in martial arts. I'm curious: to what ryu does your sensei belong?)