The Fighting Arts of Sherlock Holmes, Part 2

Part two of Mike Ball’s article series on the Great Detective’s antagonistic skills.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s spelling error allows for some creative license in the depiction of his fighting skills – in “playing the Great Game” it can be said that Holmes’ fictional baritsu is different to Barton-Wright’s real-world Bartitsu. “Baritsu” could in fact be anything at all (although strictly speaking the main component should be Japanese wrestling [1]). The rest of this article examines some fight scenes from various TV and film adaptations, and compares them to the component arts and techniques of Bartitsu and Holmes’ other skills.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

The concepts behind the fight choreography of the latest movie involved more than just the Victorian/Edwardian-era martial arts that made up Bartitsu. As fight choreographer Richard Ryan explains it:

“Bartitsu for [Holmes] was a starting point, and like any good martial artist, he continued to explore crossover points and philosophies between various martial arts. Whilst there is nothing in the script to indicate it, we followed the premise that in addition to Bartitsu, Holmes had a book or manual of Chinese Boxing and that he chose to test that system in a very pragmatic and practical manner by participating in bare-knuckle fights.”

Robert Downey Jr. is a practitoner of Wing Chun kung fu and so this was chosen as the basis of the movie’s “baritsu”. Ryan also ensured that the other ranges of combat were also covered in order to give Holmes a well-rounded fighting style that at least captured the spirit of Bartitsu:

“The film is competing with modern action films, such as Bourne and Bond, for an audience and I knew that with the creative and fight teams we had, our movie Bartitsu would be a modern interpretation. However, I wanted to capture the flavour of Victorian Bartitsu so I focused on the fighting ranges. I believed that if we could use the cane, foot, fist and grappling ranges then we would be able to create something that worked for both the contemporary and Victorian aesthetics.”

Although this is most likely a coincidence, Wing Chun shares some similarities with boxing from that era. Both styles have an upright fighting stance and utilise punches with the fist vertically oriented, as contrasted with modern boxing which has a more hunched-over, tucked-in stance and punches with a palm-down horizontal fist.

A typical upright Wing Chun stance

The Wing Chun influence can be most strongly recognised in the bare-knuckle boxing scene:

Holmes employs slapping and elbow blocks characteristic of Wing Chun, as well as vertical-fist punches that could be either Wing Chun or old-school pugilism [2]. The scene also incorporates other striking techniques, including edge-of-hand blows (which were used in many Japanese jiu-jitsu styles) and a savatesque kick.

The device of having Holmes lay out his “battle plan” of techniques before executing them was an excellent example of Holmes’ characteristic clear logical thinking and attention to detail. It was also utilised in the opening of the film, where Holmes employs a flurry of strikes to vital points to disable one of Blackwood’s henchmen. These strikes, although not in the known Bartitsu “syllabus” (with the possible exception of the punch to the liver, which would likely have been used to great effect in boxing), would probably be not unknown to martial artists at the time.

Both Watson and Holmes fight with their walking-sticks during the movie, and although the one-handed techniques resemble sword methods and standard stage combat more than they do the high-handed guard style of Bartitsu’s cane system, there are also lots of two-handed techniques similar to Bartitsu’s.

Two-handed bayonet-style technique from Pearson’s Magazine article

Several of the sticks used by the characters in the movie double as sword-canes. As well as Bartitsu, one could in fact also learn swordplay at the Bartitsu Club. Both contemporary and historical fencing were taught, the latter being explored by a group of swordsmen led by the famous Dragoon officer Captain Alfred Hutton. The Club was the headquarters in England of the Victorian revival of ancient swordplay methods. If Holmes had studied Bartitsu, he may also have had the chance to add to his fencing technique repertoire.

Another weapon favoured by Holmes was the riding crop. In “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” Watson claims that a “loaded hunting crop” was Holmes’ favourite weapon. “Loading” refers to the practice of filling a weapon with lead to increase its bludgeoning potential.

In “The Red-Headed League” he uses it to disarm a gun-wielding attacker:

“The light flashed upon the barrel of a revolver, but Holmes’s hunting crop came down on the man’s wrist, and the pistol clinked upon the stone floor.”

In the movie Holmes unsuccessfully attacks the giant Frenchman with a riding crop during their first encounter. Irene Adler very successfully uses a smaller weapon, a “life-preserver”, which is a leather-covered weapon with a similar semi-rigid structure to a riding crop.

An antique “life preserver”

The grappling techniques in the film can be directly linked to Bartitsu [3]. Watson uses a rear naked choke, commonly known as a “sleeper hold”, to help Holmes subdue an attacker at the beginning of the film. This choke is a classic judo and jiujitsu technique.

The giant Frenchman is finally dealt with by way of an armbar, which is also extremely common in judo and jiujitsu. Here it is as depicted in “The Game of Ju-jitsu”, a book co-authored by Yukio Tani, who was one of Barton-Wright’s star jiujitsu players at the Club. Tani is the man performing the technique in the photo.

One final aspect of the Bartitsu curriculum that is worth mentioning is the use of articles of clothing. This idea was drawn not from any style of jiujitsu but rather from the street tricks of 19th century “hooligans” and gangsters. Hats, overcoats and even a handkerchief are used on several occasions in the film by Watson and Holmes to entangle or obscure the vision of their opponents.

Confounding an opponent with an overcoat – from Pearson’s Magazine article

In summary, the “baritsu” of this movie incorporates boxing, other empty-hand strikes, kicking, grappling and weaponry, staying true to the eclectic nature of Bartitsu. Watson’s fighting style was actually closer to the Bartitsu blend than Holmes’, as the former had no apparent Wing Chun influence and stuck to classic boxing, jiujitsu and cane fighting. With, of course, some help from his trusty revolver. [4]

The Final Problem and the Adventure of the Empty House

In this sequence from the classic Granada TV series, Holmes relies on agility, cunning, sheer luck and finally baritsu to defeat a series of assassination attempts.

Holmes’ encounter with Moriarty at the Falls is undoubtedly the most famous of all of his fights, though all we know about the proceedings is that Moriarty rushed at Holmes and grabbed him with both arms, and that Holmes was somehow able to escape his adversary’s grasp using his “knowledge of baritsu”.

This scene is a popular one amongst Holmes re-enactors and here we shall look at two televised adaptations, the first from the Granada TV version of “The Empty House”.

Holmes breaks Moriarty’s grip with a wristlock, stuns him with a kick and then applies a powerful bear hug and throw which sends him tumbling over the edge.

Another re-imagining of the fight can be found in the Soviet TV series “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson”. This version is a more prolonged rough-and-tumble affair, and the choreography appears to be more wrestling-based:

A Study in Terror (1965)

This film pits Sherlock Holmes against one of Victorian London’s most notorious criminals, Jack the Ripper.

The first fight scene has Holmes and Watson being attacked by a gang of knife and bludgeon-wielding criminals. Both fencing and bayonet methods are used with the cane, along with some jujitsu-like throwing and brawling punches; although the resemblance is probably co-incidental, this fight choreography is remarkably close to Bartitsu:

Later in the movie Holmes performs a knife disarm against a static threat.

It is possible that unarmed defenses against weapons may have been trained at the Bartitsu Club, as Barton-Wright himself claimed to have some real-world experience in this area:

“I may state that I have repeatedly been attacked during a long residence in Portugal by men with knife or six-foot quarter-staff, and have in all cases succeeded in disabling my adversary without being hurt myself, although I had not even a stick in my hand with which to defend myself.”

He also implies that although he does not show any in his articles, he is willing to teach such methods:

“Objection may be taken to my stating that a man who attacks you with a knife or other weapon can be easily disarmed, while I do not say how this is to be done in any of the illustrated explanations on the following pages. At the request of the editor, who thought it inadvisable that such great publicity should be given to these feats, I have purposely omitted them.

If the readers of PEARSON’S MAGAZINE desire to be further initiated into the ways of meeting every conceivable contingency, I would ask them to make direct application to me.”

Holmes also defended himself against a bladed threat in “The Naval Treaty”:

“Well, he has rather more viciousness than I gave him credit for, has Master Joseph. He flew at me with his knife, and I had to grasp him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him. He looked murder out of the only eye he could see with when we had finished, but he listened to reason and gave up the papers.”

The final fight of the movie is mostly generic rough-and-tumble, however Holmes does use a wrist throw that appears to be from jiujitsu.

In the Spirit of Bartitsu

Here, just out of interest, we shall look at a couple of non-Holmesian sources that display Bartitsu-esque choreography.

The first is from the James Cagney movie “Blood on the Sun”. Cagney, already an excellent boxer, learned judo for this movie and would eventually go on to earn his black belt. His first teacher was John Halloran, an LAPD police officer who also plays his adversary. Cagney and Halloran choreographed the fights for this movie together.

The scene shows a hard-hitting, realistic-looking mix of boxing, edge-of-hand blows, low kicks, and judo throws and groundwork (there’s that armbar again…). Aside from the fact that it incorporates a more modern style of boxing, this fight is probably close to what the empty-handed methods of Bartitsu looked like.

A number of television heroes have displayed Bartitsu-like fighting skills, including:

Adam Adamant, a Victorian-era gentleman adventurer frozen in a block of ice and thawed out in swinging ’60s London. Adamant wielded a mean sword-cane and mixed boxing, jiujitsu and wrestling when unarmed:

John Steed, the dapper Edwardian-styled secret agent whose primary weapons were his seemingly indestructible crook-handled umbrella and a steel-reinforced bowler hat. Steed also made adroit use of boxing and judo/jiujitsu:

Quentin Everett Deverill, “Q.E.D.”, a brilliant American scientist living in Edwardian London, whose adventures occasionally required him to resort to manly fisticuffs and succinct jiujitsu:

And there you have it! Next time you come across someone who doubts Sherlock Holmes’ credentials as a man of action, point them this way!


[1] It may be that Holmes just chose not to mention baritsu’s non-grappling methods, for the sake of brevity. The real-life “Japanese wrestling”, the world-reknowned art of judo, actually contains little-known striking techniques and self-defense sequences that have gradually been de-emphasised in favour of the sporting applications of the art.

[2] It should be noted that Wing Chun was unknown in the Western world at this time.

[3] Director Guy Ritchie is actually a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, an art which is descended from judo and contains many of the same techniques as judo and classical Japanese jiujitsu.

[4] As far as we know, firearms techniques were never taught at the Bartitsu Club. Several self-defense instructors from that era did however incorporate them into their syllabuses, such as Jean-Joseph Rénaud, who had studied jiujitsu under former Club instructors and went on to write an excellent volume on self-defense titled “La Défense dans La Rue”.

This entry was posted in Antagonistics, Baritsu, Boxing, Canonical Bartitsu, E. W. Barton-Wright, Jiujitsu, Pop-culture, Sherlock Holmes, Video, Vigny stick fighting. Bookmark the permalink.