“How I taught Holmes baritsu …”

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Saturday, 23rd November 2013

The following essay is a translation, by the author of the Hmm Yes Perfect blog, of a memoir by Russian fight choreographer Nikolay Vaschilin. Mr. Vaschilin staged the climactic Holmes/Moriarty battle for The Deadly Combat (1980), an episode of the Russian telemovie series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, starring Vasily Livanov as Holmes.

We have taken the liberty of lightly editing the translation towards colloquial English and clarifying a few points raised in the memoir as they relate to Bartitsu. We have attempted to preserve as much of the colour and detail of the original translation as possible.

Mr. Vaschilin begins:

In the early spring of 1979 I met Igor Maslennikov in the Lenfilm studio café. While we were drinking coffee, Maslennikov asked me to join his conversation with the art director Mark Kaplan about the new Sherlock Holmes TV movie.

I had met Igor Fyodorovich in 1964 on an advanced directing course; he was studying and I just wanted to be there. Later I was in his movie Tomorrow, on the third of April …, in which I played Fantomas. And later I staged the fight scene between two knights in Yaroslanva – Queen of France, which gave me the opportunity to study Livanov’s movement quite well.

We started with a cognitive question – what is baritsu? As the master of sports of the USSR in sambo and judo, I should have known this in Maslennikov’s opinion. I confessed that I didn’t know anything about baritsu; the only Conan Doyle book I’d read was The Hound of the Baskervilles. But I suggested that the ending of the word could have Japanese roots. Judo and jiu jitsu were well known in Russia. Yura Wexler joined us and said that I was right and that he would find the story where he has read about these Japanese roots. The story was called The Empty House. But we couldn’t worry about this since at the end of the XIX century Japanese martial arts were extremely popular in Europe. My requests at the Public Library ended up with nothing.

The professor of stage movement, Ivan Edmundovich Koh, and the professor of the department of physical education institute of martial arts Konstantin Trofimovich Bulochko only regretted that the the excellent French boxer and fencer Ernesto Lustallo, who would have probably given us the right answer, was not available to help. Nobody knew about baritsu.

Another big problem for the filming team was the final scene, in which Professor Moriarty loses and falls into the abyss. Innokenty Smoktunovsky was supposed to play Moriarty, so we were talking only about his stunt double. But before discussing him, I mentioned to Maslennikov Konstantin Raikin’s similar fall off the cliff in Nikita Mikhalkov’s movie At Home Amongst Strangers, A Stranger Amongst Friends. Despite my participation in the movie, we agreed that repeating the same trick wouldn’t be interesting, especially in that a criminal like Moriarty would know a few dodgy methods of killing. At this awkward pause we decided to leave everything until we had seen the location for ourselves.

After a few days we found ourselves in a heated debate on the plane flying to Abkhazia. We reached the falls, which were still dormant following the winter freeze. For all of this time I was thinking about staging this fight with English boxing techniques. The prototype was Lord Byron’s cruel and realistic boxing scene from the 1972 English movie Lady Caroline Lamb.

Maslennikov liked the idea and said that he wanted the audience to watch this fight with some irony. Not humor, like in Charlie Chaplin’s movies, but the irony of people who understand the futility of the fight. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

A battle thundered here yesterday

the sand got wet with blood.

And who won in the end –

it’s a morning breeze.

My personal experience of fighting with evil, trained into me by my sambo teacher Alexander Massarsky, has concluded that the evil should destroy itself in the end, by stumbling upon an obstacle. The obstacle should just appear in the right time. Planning and testing the fight scene, with Holmes and Watson represented by Maslennikov and Kaplan, it became clear that this fight on the edge of the abyss should end with the opponents totally collapsing from exhaustion. Also, I couldn’t get the figure of Colonel Moran out of my head, he who finishes the murderer of Professor Moriarty – Holmes.

That’s how I got the idea of the final phase of the fight and the death of the enemies. In my opinion, they should finish the fight by grappling with each other on the ground and inexorably roll to the edge of the abyss. Here, her Majesty Fate would take the side of Holmes and allow him to cling to the rocks; Moriarty, thinking himself in luck, has the top position during this grapple. At least they will drown together. But Holmes’ clothes inexorably tear and Moriarty falls into the abyss alone, leaving lucky Holmes on the ledge. Now he has only to trick the tiger hunter by appearing to die after Moran shoots at him.

The finale was accepted very well. This is the most important thing in every business; all’s well that ends well. Now that it was clear how the fight would end, I could consider the rest of it. First of all – how long would the fight last? Secondly – at what pace? And thirdly – by what methods that would reveal the character of the opponents?

The plan of the fight

Now I had to examine their characters and their natural movement styles, devise their attack and defence techniques, and then teach these skills to the actors until they could perform them automatically. Really, I had to put them into a dance that would reveal their characters, intrigue the audience and come to the finale, causing the audience to cry out in happiness for their hero. My honorable helpers Igor Maslennikov and Mark Kaplan couldn’t help me in that on the edge of the abyss, so we came back to Leningrad. I took back with me only the exact idea of the quality of the area; lots of slippery stones and the shape of its safe zones.

Maslennikov and Kaplan performing the fight, April of 1979

When I came back to Leningrad, I chose in my studio several stuntmen from the Theatre Institute, where I was honored to work as a docent, and we started the rehearsals. The fight was divided into two parts by tempo and rate. In the first phase the attacks were quick and resolute, full of the desire of a fast and absolute win. Moriarty attacks first, suddenly and insidiously, and is surprised when he can’t quickly achieve his goal and win the fight. It unnerves him. Holmes is like a wall, from which evil shots ricochet; he defends himself without fighting back. In the second part of the fight, which is broken by the hotel scene in which Watson realises that Moriarty has tricked him, the enemies are quite exhausted. Their clothes are ripped off, they viciously fight for a better position towards the abyss, which inevitably waits for them.

I roughly measured the time it would take and, picking a number of suitable techniques, we started draft rehearsals. At the same time I contacted my old friends, the climbers Volodya and Yura, who worked with me in Sibiriade by Andrei Konchalovsky. I gave them the task of working out the technique of belaying the actors and stuntmen in the scene where Moriarty falls off the cliff. In the production studio workshop a Moriarty mannequin was designed, with swivels in the arm and leg joints, of approximately human weight. This mannequin, dropped by the climbers from the falls, would perfectly imitate the body of the falling Moriarty. It was pointless for a stuntman to do that trick.

Igor Maslennikov and the cameraman Tolya Lapshov were visiting the rehearsals. Yura Wexler, who filmed the first episodes, had a heart attack and couldn’t be present. At the rehearsals Igor Fyodorovich met Vitya Evgrafov, who played a monk in his movie Yaroslavna – Queen of France and whom Maslennikov didn’t really like. Sasha Pokramovich was standing in for Livanov; he was a stuntman and a student of Vladimir Petrov’s acting courses. The characters portrayed by them in the fight were getting Maslennikov more and more after every single rehearsal. When Livanov appeared in the Theatre Institute for practice, he and Evgrafov looked and moved very effectively together. Maslennikov cast Evgrafov as a stuntman at first, and then later as Moriarty himself.

As the result of practicing and searching we had the full plan of the fight by September. I have to say all these street fights have a lot in common. The opponents should look for a perfect moment and suddenly shorten the distance between each other. This is not easy to do since one of them will try to keep the distance safe. This is the longest and the hardest part of the fight. If an opponent shortens the distance, he loses a lot of strength for attacks, but he might face an effective defense and counterattack and the situation will be lost. And with this the whole fight will be lost too.

At a longer distance the opponents use ineffective attacks which stumble upon a defense or miss the target. Then, after coming close to each other, the opponents use grips, throws and strangulations. They enfold and tumble each other on the ground, trying to seize a good position on the top and strike a final blow. At the end of the rehearsals it was decided not to use boxing techniques since they required a prepared space and quick change of distance. The slippery stones at the “Reichenbach Falls” location didn’t allow the opponents to jump about.

Lightning-fast clutches for a deadly grip, a fight for a good position towards the abyss, getting free from the grips by hitting the pressure points and head punches – this is the arsenal of the two irreconcilable enemies, who represent two different schools. The attacking and aggressive school of the criminal world, and the school of Eastern wisdom and the resourcefulness of an intellectual, which really suits the hieroglyph of Conan Doyle’s “baritsu”.

In October the whole filming team of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson arrived in Picunda. We settled down in a guest house by the sea. Almost not disturbing the shooting of other scenes with Vasily Livanov, we rehearsed every day. In the morning – one hour training for physical conditioning, running on sand and swimming in the sea. And of course, the mandatory triple-test of the fight at a slow, comfortable pace. The five year old son of Vasily Borisovich Livanov, Borya, was very interested in these rehearsals and tried to do some of the tricks himself. In the evening, after the shooting, we had one hour’s training on individual attacks, and at the end – the whole fight with maximum speed and stress. After that, when the sun was going down, relaxing swimming in the warm sea. Water sharpens stones, and time teaches and heals.

After a month of these exercises the actors started to ask for new and more complicated attacks. These innovations I forbade at a certain stage, which caused their discontent and irritation. The restless and narcissistic Vitya Evgrafov was especially unhappy. My target was to work out in them the automatism and speed of performing the attacks like they were professional fighters. The method of shooting this scene, its importance that was set by the director didn’t allow using professional athletes as stuntmen. The stuntmen only showed the actors how to do tricks and insured their safety.

The director, Gregory Prusovsky, arranged a bus to transport ourselves, the designers and the makeup team and we were driving to the “Reichenbach Falls” for practice, though not as often as I wanted. I was shooting the most interesting phases of the fight at different angles, so I could show them to the director and cameraman afterwards. When I felt that the actors were running out of patience, I finished the rehearsals.

Once we arrived after a heavy rainstorm and were stunned; the falls were like Niagara. The rock ledge that the actors were supposed to hang on to was so slippery that it was impossible to stand on. The costumes were getting completely soaked after a minute. The makeup was getting wet, too, and was running down their cheeks. But it was magnificent. It created an atmosphere that you couldn’t simulate in any way, not even by Stanislavsky or Nemirovich-Danchenko. I insisted that we should film then and there.

According to the shooting schedule, this was the day of scouting the area and taking master shots. But Igor Fyodorovich didn’t want to waste his time and shot some scenes with the opponents preparing for the fight. Holmes was writing a note to Watson, stretching his shoulders and arms for the refined striking of vital points in the baritsu style. Then they shot Moriarty throwing his hat over the precipice, giving Holmes and the audience a clue as to how deep the abyss was.

Suddenly, Maslennikov decided to show Moriarty’s despicable character by Holmes foreseeing, like a fortune teller, that Moriarty has a knife. The idea was striking in its simplicity; let Moriarty come at Holmes with that knife and Holmes will counter with baritsu. Knife fighting?! Without any rehearsals?! But here I had to rise up. It’s sad to imagine how that improvisation would have ended! We decided that Moriarty would keep the knife for some time and then generously throw it away into the abyss. Like an honest person! But the quick fall of the knife couldn’t be captured by the cameraman.

The next morning, the 29th of October, the team drove to our hotel and Vitya Sergeev and I went to get Livanov from his room. Vasily Borisovich was lying in bed suffering from high temperature. Snot was flowing from his nose as if from a waterfall. Maslennikov came in and decided to cancel the shooting. I went down on my knees, pleading. It worked. I understood that this opportunity would not soon return. As it always was in the movie business, we would make the best of random fate.

So we drove to the deadly fight. To the fight with the rain, with the roaring water, with the makeup and the costumes getting wet, with water splashing into the camera, upon the slippery rocks. The driver was cursing me while driving on wet, serpentine roads. Maslennikov was waiting. In the end it’s never too late to cancel the shoot. Nobody was really saving the government’s money.

The rain was drizzling. The team was in the bus. We started to rehearse in athletic clothes. The phase with Evgrafov losing balance and then coming out with an attack position was worrying me the most. At this stressful moment Vitya said that he refused to do it and he didn’t like it and so-on. In general it meant that he was the boss and I was the fool. I hissed a threat. Vasya supported me and we broke him. After one hour the sky became clear. The climbers started their vertical journey with the Moriarty mannequin.

Action! Camera! Go! We are filming the scene there Moriarty throws away his knife. Then he throws away the hat. Now Moriarty’s first deadly attack, seizing Holmes by the throat. It’s bad. Sluggish. Inexpressive. No impetuosity and power. It lacked the most important thing, the suddenness of a professor of the criminal world. Five tries into the dustbin. I tell him that he’s not Moriarty, but Little Red Riding Hood. The red hat is worn on his head, with the “Adidas” emblem on it. Works infallibly. Evgrafov now strikes like a panther, almost knocking Livanov down. Livanov frees himself by striking into the subclavian area. It’s a pure symbol. But it’s a good symbol that easily reads on the screen.

Another attack, a struggle with a block, then Moriarty butts Holmes’ face with his head. That was a criminal’s “greeting”; a typical trick of criminals the whole world over, but especially of English boxers. Lapshov shoots the scene very closely. The actors’ faces are seen perfectly, and the hint that they are standing on the edge of the abyss is created by the waterfall in the background. Again the throat grab, and again Holmes gains his freedom by twisting Moriarty’s arms away.

Here comes the shot of Moriarty losing balance on the edge of the abyss. But he survives and is ready to fight on. Here Evgrafov takes revenge on me and spontaneously assumes a stance reminiscent of the karate style. A boxing stance would have been a better choice. Moriarty and the East are two incompatible things. Moriarty’s stance should’ve hidden his intentions and allowed for a sudden, unexpected attack, as was shown in the first shot. Or did he and Holmes go to the same baritsu school?

The right position

Now, this stance is made up, it’s grotesque and leaves the attack without any suddenness. Plus it looks like karate, which hadn’t reached Europe at the time.

Next a bit of relaxation, hot tea and nasal drops for Livanov, and, of course, he puts a cigarette into his mouth. The costume designer Nelechka Lev, with whom we had been friends since Yaroslavna – Queen of France, drops her knitting and runs towards us with her assistants. They check out the makeup and the costumes. I have donned Holmes’ costume, preparing to fight instead of Vasily Borisovich, who is still unwell.

While the actors are resting, we film the fall of the Moriarty mannequin. Lapshov was forced by Maslennikov and Sergeev to use two cameras for this shoot; a crazy luxury for those times. The camera should have its own cameraman. Where do we get the second cameraman? Tolya Lapshov trusts his assistants. One camera films almost from the front and another one from the side. The administrator Jora Mautkin went with the climbers with a flare-gun. It was impossible to shout cues over the thundering of the water, even if we had a walkie-talkie, which we didn’t have anyway.

Action! Camera! And instead of “Go!” – the flare-gun fires. The mannequin plummets, hits the rocks, bounces off and flips around. Just like Moriarty himself in Conan Doyle’s story. Now we had only to pray that the film stock of this, our only take, wouldn’t turn out to be defective. But we will learn, only two weeks later back at Lenfilm, that this was, indeed, the case. In its place will be inserted a scene in the hotel with the bamboozled Watson.

We start to film the fight again. Moriarty grabs Holmes from behind and pushes him towards the edge of the abyss. Holmes throws Moriarty away and he effectively flies off, sliding on the gravel. Moriarty, with manic persistence, attacks Holmes again and presses him against the cliff face. Holmes stops the attack with his leg. Moriarty seizes Holmes’s throat again, and this time Holmes gains his freedom by twisting Moriarty’s arm behind his back. In terms of the Eastern martial arts, this would be aikido. But the techniques came to aikido from the early Chinese kempo.

We moved on to the shooting of the fall from the rocky ledge. With God’s help we filmed the combatant’s struggle near the narrow ledge of the abyss. The stones were slippery. The safety belaying was difficult there. The stress was growing. I guessed that the actors were scared. I got into the belaying harness and hung in the abyss myself. The height was about ten meters. The climbers Volodya and Yura hung on the ropes and showed how to “fall”. With nerves and persuasions, we started to film. The actors were lying on the edge of the cliff, hugging each other like brothers.

The belay ropes were worn under their costumes and allowed free acting, but that freedom also gave a sense that the ropes were not there at all. To allow oneself to fall into the abyss with that sensation was a hard job indeed. The stinging spray of the falls struck the actors’ faces and backs. The noise was impossible. You couldn’t hear a single word. All communication was done by gestures. Everybody forgot about the makeup, it was all washed away. The actors started to get chills from the cold. Can we do this? We can. Let the film stock of this, our only take, not be defective! But we would not know that for sure until it was developed, two weeks later…

Action! Camera! Go! Livanov gets into position first. Evgrafov lies on top of him. Slowly, with great fear, the actors start to slip over the ledge and slide into the abyss. The belay ropes tightened until they were both hanging in space. Livanov grabbed the sharp rocks and Moriarty started to slip down. Holmes’ shirt ripped and Moriarty fell, disappearing from the shot. The ropes held both actors above the abyss. Cut! Print!

Postscript: 2011

A quarter of a century has now passed. Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain, Elizabeth II, has awarded Vasily Borisovich Livanov with an Order of the British Empire for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

The famous fencing-master Sergey Mishenev, who revived Bartitsu in Russia, has told me that at the end of the XIX century Bartitsu was very popular in England. This new martial art, created by Edward Barton-Wright at the very end of the XIX century was popular for a short time, and then the Bartitsu Academy closed in 1902. But just one year later, Barton-Wright’s creation stepped into eternity …

Sergey told me that his colleague, one of the world’s leaders of modern Bartitsu, Tony Wolf, has watched our Sherlock Holmes movie and gave an excellent review of the fight scene that reflects the unique style of baritsu.

Sergey Mishenev and Nikolay Vashchilin

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