Young Sherlock Holmes
Before a lifetime of adventure, they lived the adventure of a lifetime
Studio: Paramount Pictures :::::::::: Release Date: December 6th 1985
Director: Barry Levinson :::::::::: Starring: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox
Budget: $18M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $40.1M
U.S Box Office: $19.7M :::::::::: 2015 Equivalent: $43.9M
Meeting for the first time at college, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson soon find themselves investigating a series of mysterious deaths. Discovering a link between the victims, the would-be detective uncovers an even greater danger, and will need to rely on all his powers of observation and deduction if he and Watson are to survive the Pyramid of Fear.
Easily one of the most popular literary characters of all time, Sherlock Holmes has appeared in countless movies, TV shows and almost every other form of media since his first appearance in 1887. If anything, in recent years, his popularity has reached even greater heights with new films, TV shows and a novel courtesy of Anthony Horowitz. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the stories focused on consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and partner John Watson, and the many cases they would be called upon to investigate. Yet through all the tales, very little is given to the circumstances of their first encounter - or their lives before that time. Doyle himself had the pair meet when Watson was looking for a room to rent, and a mutual friend put him onto Sherlock Holmes. In 1985, Chris Columbus, Barry Levinson and Steven Spielberg offered their own turn of events, starting many years before A Study in Scarlet, with Holmes and Watson meeting at college.
By the time Young Sherlock Holmes came to him, Chris Columbus already had one major success under his belt and another on the horizon. Gremlins had been a smash hit in the summer of 1984, and he'd soon repeat that with The Goonies. Both movies had been executively produced by Steven Spielberg through his company, Amblin. He tasked Columbus with writing what was essentially a Sherlock Holmes origin story - an idea that both excited and terrified the young screenwriter. With little to no back story for the famous detective (or his partner) in Conan Doyle's tales, Columbus sunk himself into the entire back catalogue in an attempt to discover what made Holmes tick. He would take many leads from the stories (along with the novels of Dickens), and devised the origins behind some of the methods Holmes would use later in life.
He was particularity interested in the great detective's cold and emotionless state when dealing with his clients and their cases, and envisioned a singular incident that would set him on that path. At the same time, Columbus was cautious not to offend fans of the original material, along with the Conan Doyle estate, whose support for the project they wanted to keep [The finished film would carry a closing epilogue stating that the story was affectionate speculation of what might have happened, and had been made with ‘respectful admiration and in tribute to the author and his endearing works’]. As with many Amblin productions, Spielberg made contributions to the script, specifically the nightmarish hallucination sequences. With work progressing nicely, a search for a director began. Ruling himself out of the role due to his commitment to The Color Purple, Spielberg's pick to helm the mystery thriller was an unusual one.
Like many directors of the time, Barry Levinson got his first break in TV, writing scripts for the likes of Marty Feldman, Tim Conway and Carol Burnett, before graduating to movies. Teaming up with Mel Brooks, he worked on the scripts for both Silent Movie and High Anxiety, and was Oscar nominated (along with his wife) for the Al Pacino movie, And Justice for All. In 1982 he made his feature debut with Diner, a critically acclaimed comedy drama about a group of friends who reunite for the wedding of one of the group. The picture made $14M off a $5M budget and helped launch the careers of Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon. Levinson was once again nominated for an Academy award for the screenplay. His next movie, the Robert Redford drama, The Natural, would be his first job as director for hire, the script having been written by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry. While not as well received as his previous work, The Natural made $48M in North America and is still seen by some as the best baseball movie ever produced.
Yet little in his previous work suggested he could make a mystery thriller with action elements - let alone one that would also involve a number of special effects sequences. Spielberg saw something in the 42 year old director, revealing in a New York Times article prior to the film's release that he felt he (Levinson) was a frustrated action adventure director. For his part, Levinson jumped at the opportunity to direct Young Sherlock Holmes, feeling it would offer him a wealth of new experiences which he could take on to future projects. The two directors spent much time talking about the movie, agreeing that it should move at a break-neck pace, not giving the viewer a chance to look for plot holes. The key was in the casting; they needed to find actors with a ready chemistry - if Young Sherlock Holmes was a success, there was no reason why it couldn't become a franchise, especially given how much material there was to mine.
Of the two leads, it was John Watson who was cast first. Alan Cox, son of veteran actor Brian, had been performing since he was six years old. His first onscreen role was as Jason in the TV movie, A Divorce. He then appeared in the Eric Syke's curio, If You Go Down to the Woods Today, a film about a scoutmaster who takes his troupe into the woods even though he's aware that killings have recently taken place there. Cox continued to appear in numerous TV shows before taking on a role in the Laurence Olivier film, A Voyage around My Father. The picture, based on the early life of John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole of the Bailey) won much acclaim. Aged only 14, Alan Cox won the role of Watson, but finding Sherlock would prove to be much harder. By the time the casting crew came to Eton, they'd already been searching for three months with little luck. It was Nicholas Rowe's drama master who urged him to try out for the role, having spotted the crew scouring the college for a 'proper young gentleman" as he put it.
The young actor was in his final winter term, and already had a university place in Bristol secured when he tried out for the role of Sherlock Holmes. Impressed with his initial audition, Rowe was called back a further four times, and then given a full costume screen test opposite Alan Cox. There were two other actors up for the part, including a certain Hugh Grant. Unbeknownst to Rowe, it was Alan Cox who may have been partly responsible for him being cast. After the screen test, the new Watson expressed that he liked the 'tall guy with the big nose best'. The casting director couldn't deny the duo had a ready chemistry that had been somewhat absent with others they had seen (including Grant, one assumes). A video of the screen test was sent to Steven Spielberg, who along with Henry Winkler (TV's The Fonz, taking his first full producer credit) agreed. Things moved very quickly after that, with Rowe receiving the news that he had won the role during the Christmas of 1984, and that shooting would commence January 1985.
While the search for Holmes and Watson had been going on, Sophie Ward won the role of Elizabeth. Like Alan Cox, Ward started her acting career at a relatively young age, appearing in The Other Window, The Copter Kids and Full Circle before her 13th birthday. Forgoing drama school, she trained under veteran ballerina Merle Park before being deemed too tall to continue. She appeared in numerous theatrical productions before winning the part of Elizabeth Hardy in Young Sherlock Holmes.
In the role of Professor Rathe, a teacher who takes a shine to Holmes, was noted stage and screen actor Anthony Higgins. Favouring theatre, Higgins won acclaim for his work in Romeo and Juliet, and went on to tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, winning the Time Out Actor of the year award in 1979. Young Sherlock Holmes wouldn't be his first time working with Steven Spielberg, having had a small part as Major Gobler in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The remainder of the cast was rounded out by Freddie Jones, Susan Fleetwood and Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Lestrade. Michael Hordern would supply the voice of the older Watson, narrating the tale.
With an $18M budget supplied by Paramount Pictures, filming on Young Sherlock Holmes commenced in January 1985 to meet a December 1985 release window. The picture would shoot for around four months, across a number of British locations including Penshurst Place, Belvoir Castle and Eton College. For set based sequences, Elstree Studios were utilised. There were no major issues during filming except for Alan Cox having a growth spurt, resulting in some of the later shots of him being taken from more of a distance. Spielberg also had to pay for grass to be replaced at Radley College in Oxford when fake snow destroyed it during filming. The real headaches, however, appeared with the film’s extensive (and ground breaking) visual and special effects work, of which Young Sherlock Holmes would employ many different types. Central to the film's plot is a number of terrifying hallucinatory sequences, along with Holmes taking to flight in a bizarre bike-glider device. In charge of making much of this appear on screen were Dennis Muren and his team at Industrial Light and Magic. By 1985, Muren was already an industry legend, having pioneered so many techniques that continue to be used today, but even he was wary of what lay ahead on Young Sherlock.
For the flying contraption set piece, the crew had no real option other than to build a life sized replica and suspend it from wires above Belvoir Castle. Despite the cost and practicality of building the machine, shooting it was relatively painless and required minimal work in post production. The same couldn't be said for the harpie attack on the character of Waxflatter, which utilised a technique called go-motion in which a computer controlled both the movement of the harpies and the camera itself. This method gave the creature's wings a natural motion blur. But the task of refining the movements and masking the camera rig took a group of animators many months to achieve. While Spielberg was largely absent during filming, another set piece would be one of the few instances in which the producer disagreed with his director - the hallucination that sees Watson attacked by a larder of food.
Spielberg loved the idea, and was impressed with Dave Carson's concept sketches. To shoot the sequence Muren and Co. opted to go with rod puppets as opposed to animation. He reasoned that using puppets they could shoot a number of different takes with ease, were as with animation, they only really had one shot to get it right. Levinson felt the scene was a little silly, and got worse the longer it went on where as Spielberg's view was the opposite, and he urged Muren to go even further. In the end, Levinson won out and the scene and its excesses were cut back. Had it gone ahead, it would have felt at odds with Holmes' hallucination, an emotionally charged incident involving his parents. There were issues with some of the matte painting work too, with Chris Evans vocalising his unhappiness during an interview with Cinefex. He stated that the job was made much harder due to being called in after plates had already been shot. Had he been on set sooner he could have easily solved many of the issues he subsequently had to overcome. Evans' would also create the first ever digital matte shot on Young Sherlock Holmes, which was used during the hugely ambitious stained-glass knight sequence.
If one scene stands out in the movie, it is that of the stained-glass knight. Another hallucination set piece, it would be the first time that a completely computer generated character was used in a movie [Some argue that technically Tron holds this title with the polyhedron character of Bit]. Dennis Muren wasn't sold on the idea of creating the knight digitally because he felt computer generated imagery hadn't advanced enough to be convincing. However, he was willing to give Lucasfilm's computer graphics division a chance at creating something potentially ground breaking. To be on the safe side, he also factored in time at the end of the post production period in case the sequence needed to be created using more conventional methods. Adding to the complexity of the job ahead was the fact that the character was essentially 2D, but needed to look 3D - and menacing. The team was in unknown territory; if they needed a tool to do a job, they had to create it themselves. Work progressed slowly, yet the team continued to make breakthroughs in both the scene and the software they were using. A new rendering tool meant they got to see a test run in around five minutes as opposed to two hours.
John Lassetter, a name that would become synonymous with computer generated imagery in the near future, spent many hours using a 3D space digitiser, scanning in co-ordinates of a clay model of the knight they'd created. Muren continued to support the venture, while pushing the staff hard to raise the level of believability in the character. The team even ended up using tape measures and blueprints on the actual set to ensure everything was where it should be, in terms of where the knight would be walking in 'their' version of the scene. Though the methods seem antiquated by today's standards, much of what they achieved sowed the seeds for almost everything that would follow in terms of computer generated imagery. It would take a full six months of work to finish the scene, which lasts less than 2 minutes in the film, with the knight himself appearing for only 30 or so seconds of that time. Yet it would go on to become one of the key promotional aspects of the film, often appearing as a supplementary clip to footage of Holmes and Watson. The work behind many of the film’s effects (both digital and practical) were also covered by an extensive article in Cinefex magazine.
Young Sherlock Holmes was due for release in December 1985. The main trailer used to announce and promote the film pushed the action angle for all it was worth, selling it as an Indiana Jones style romp rather than a murder mystery. Indeed, to reinforce the idea further, the picture received the full title of Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear in the U.K and Australia. Initial signs that the film wouldn't perform well began to creep in with the reviews. While they were generally between average and positive, more than one pointed out that the film became undone when it veered too far into Indiana Jones territory. Rowe and Cox did receive good notices, both for their performance and on-screen chemistry. Furthermore, it appears Columbus’ handling of the material was deemed respectful of its origins while existing as its own thing. As with Krull and The Last Starfighter, one of the issues in promoting Young Sherlock Holmes was the lack of star power on which to hang the picture. While the principal actors worked tirelessly, giving TV and magazine interviews, they were by and large unknown to the general public, meaning the film itself had even more work to do if it was to become a success.
Winter isn't generally as busy as the summer in terms of film releases, but there were still a number of major showings that Sherlock would need to face off against. Rocky IV had opened the week before to huge business, and was giving no sign of being ready to give up the top spot. Perhaps a bigger concern was the release of Spies like Us on the same December 6-8th weekend. One of its stars, Chevy Chase, was having the best year of his entire career, seeing not one but two hits in the summer (Fletch and National Lampoon's European Vacation). A week later would bring The Jewel of the Nile, the much anticipated sequel to the 1984 hit, Romancing the Stone. There were older releases to contend with too, including King Solomon's Mines and a still going strong Back to the Future (entering its 23rd weekend on general release) that could all be a thorn in Holmes' side. However, with the Christmas break coming up, most pictures would receive something of a boost - every day of the holiday week generally playing like a Friday or Saturday.
In the end, none of it really mattered. Young Sherlock Holmes opened in fifth place, making a poor $2.5M. As expected both Rocky IV and Spies like Us won the weekend, with $11.1M and $8.6M respectively. Holmes was further beaten by Santa Claus the Movie and White Nights, which had expanded out of limited release. Weekend two wasn't much better either, with the film suffering a 37% drop on its already low opening frame. A huge expansion in its third weekend, readying for a Christmas boost, did nothing to help and it slipped quietly out of the top ten. While it managed to re-enter the chart on the following weekend (scoring the best total of its release), it was short lived. A month on from its release it had barely clawed back more than half of its budget. By mid-January, it was gone altogether, having made a disappointing $16.9M. When all was said and done, Young Sherlock Holmes had earnt $19.7M.
Nicholas Rowe would spend almost a year promoting the film around the world, but its lackluster performance in the U.S was repeated elsewhere. It would go on to gain traction on the home video market, and has become a regular feature on network TV in the intervening years, but was never the money spinning franchise starter Spielberg and Columbus had hoped for. In a baffling turn, two years after the film’s debut, a video game adaptation was released exclusively for the MSX. Young Sherlock: The Legacy of Doyle was an official license (the back cover even featured photos of Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox) yet followed a completely different story.
At least the efforts of Muren and Co. were rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects in 1986, though the film ultimately lost out to Cocoon, whose effects were also produced by ILM. The work pioneered by the computer graphics division on Young Sherlock would serve countless others over the years, influencing such pictures as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. Dennis Muren remains the most decorated person in Oscar history, having won nine Academy awards to date.
In what seems like an inexplicable move to the modern audience, Lucasfilm decided to offload the computer graphics division the following year, selling it to Steve Jobs. John Lasseter and others went with it, and formed Pixar, which would become the most successful computer animation company in the world. It was purchased by Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion dollars. As part of the deal Lasseter became chief creative officer for Disney's animation division, while still retaining control at Pixar. Completing the circle so to speak, Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, with ownership of Industrial Light and Magic coming as part of that deal.
Sadly, for the three main leads, Young Sherlock Holmes would be the biggest movie of their careers. After struggling to get a foothold in Hollywood (including failed auditions for The Secret of My Success and The Name of the Rose), Nicholas Rowe returned to England and went to Bristol University, as he had originally planned. While he did some TV work in the following years, he would not appear in a feature until 1996's True Blue. More TV roles would come, along with a cameo in the Guy Ritchie film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He has continued to mix stage, TV and film work. In an interesting curio, he will once again play Sherlock Holmes in the new Bill Condon movie, Mr. Holmes. The picture, about the retired detective (now played by Ian McKellen) looking back over his life, will feature a TV show based on some of his adventures. It is in these adventures that Rowe will once again reprise the role that made him famous almost twenty years ago.
After Sherlock, Alan Cox was absent from screens until an appearance in the UK hospital drama, Casualty in 1990. He'd go on to other TV work but similar to Nicholas Rowe, wouldn't appear in a feature for many years. He too would mix stage and screen roles, and recently had a cameo in the Sacha Baron Cohen film, The Dictator. In contrast, Sophie Ward worked consistently post-Sherlock, with turns in Wuthering Heights, amongst much other TV and movie work. She had recurring roles in Dinotopia, Heartbeat and Land Girls, and made headlines in 1996 when it was revealed she had left her husband for Rena Brannan, a female writer. The pair was wed in a civil partnership ceremony in 2000. Anthony Higgins, in an interesting twist, would play the famous detective in the 1993 TV Movie, Sherlock Holmes Returns, in which he found himself awakened in modern times. He would continue to act on stage and screen, his most recent role being in the Tim Roth drama, United Passions.
While the people in front of the camera may not have faired quite so well, Barry Levinson went from strength to strength. He followed up Young Sherlock Holmes with Tin Men, Good Morning, Vietnam and Rainman, for which he won a best director Oscar. Personal project Avalon (Part of his Baltimore series of pictures with Diner and Tin Men) was followed up by Bugsy, but dream project Toys in 1992, was a costly misfire. Since then he has mixed blockbusters (Disclosure, Sleepers) with satire (Wag the Dog, Man of the Year). In recent times he has even turned his hand to the horror genre with The Bay. His latest feature, the comedy Rock the Kasbah, which stars Bruce Willis and Billy Murray, is set for release in 2015. Steven Spielberg directed The Color Purple while Levinson was working on Young Sherlock. It would be the first of a number of adult orientated projects he would undertake, which would include Empire of the Sun, Always and Schindler's List, which he shot while completing post production work on the blockbuster, Jurassic Park. He remains one of the busiest and most successful producer/directors in cinematic history.
Sherlock Holmes has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in the last few years. The Guy Ritchie films, starring Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law, kicked things off in 2009. Six months later, under the guidance of Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the BBC introduced Sherlock, a modern day take on the characters, which featured elements of Conan Doyle’s original stories. The show proved incredibly popular and made superstars out of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. It also helped spawn a US equivalent entitled Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. As mentioned above, Bill Condon has recently completed work on Mr. Holmes, a film starring Ian McKellan as the titular detective, looking back on his life. Some of this success may explain why in 2012, word began to surface of a Young Sherlock Holmes remake. Paramount Pictures hired the writer of The Lion King 3 to pen the script, and secured Chris Columbus to produce (as Warner Bros. had done on their stalled Gremlins remake). At the time of writing, no further news has been forthcoming.
Star power aside, it’s hard to see why Young Sherlock Holmes didn’t perform better at the box office. The film is well remembered by those who have seen it, and even Holmes purists consider it a solid attempt at the character’s origins. The chemistry of the leads is there for all to see, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see them embark on further adventures together, especially given the ground work laid down by the first film. It remains an enjoyable thriller with some truly terrifying sequences, and while the fabled stain-glass knight doesn’t hold up quite so well, it’s still a fantastic creation, without which Terminator 2 may not have had its T-1000, nor Jurassic Park such convincing dinosaurs. Given the enduring popularity of the characters, Young Sherlock Holmes is more than worthy of a second chance.