Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The monkey dance of death. Or maybe just whacked shins.

Ah, baritsu. You used to be so cool.

Once upon a time, Sherlock Holmes had his own martial art. He used it to "just say no" to a grabby mathematics professor and rid London of a crime wave, all in one exotic move. He said it came from a Japanese system of wrestling, which made it kind of like an obscure branch of something stolen from Sinanju, the sun source of all martial arts.

Of course, then comes Robert Downey, Jr., and his Batman-like dissection of his opponent's weaknesses followed by exploitation of same, in the movie Sherlock Holmes. And then we started hearing about "bartitsu," the Victorian martial art that claims to be what Sherlock Holmes was actually using. Now it pops up in my Google newsfeed in headlines like "Fight Like Sherlock Holmes: A Victorian Martial Art Makes A Comeback." Sure, it was rediscovered before the first Downey film, but would we be hearing of it at all, if not for the Downey action flick (which doesn't really use it)?

I wonder. Sure, it might have gotten another little write-up in The Baker Street Journal, as it did in 1958, but have you seen the photos of bartitsu in action? It's got all the goofy posing of old fashioned Marquis of Queensbury fisticuffs with some orangutan-like stances that look as vulnerable as can be to any sort of low kick. It's no wonder that the normally tenacious fans of Sherlock Holmes didn't dig into bartitsu in past decades, and seemed happy to let it be swept under the carpet. It's just not baritsu.

The marital arts have come a long, long way since Victorian England. And most sensible folks know that fighting out of your weight class will get you clobbered no matter what your particular flavor of fighting style is . . . which is the main reason the handgun exists at all. Even Sherlock Holmes, who was an able boxer and stick-fighter, knew when it was time just to have a pistol in the pocket and dispense with the niceties.

Maybe one of these days, "bartitsu," which actually sounds like a groping technique for taverns, will fade into the London reek once more and we can get back to the mysterious coolness of baritsu. But for now, I think I'll stick to paying more attention to Holmes's mental methods than something that looks like someone imbibed a little too much serum of langur.


  1. I hope they get very restricted filming permits.

  2. Liked your post. I believe Downey used some bartitsu moves in "A Game of Shadows", but I'm not entirely sure. I've seen some videos of modern-day practitioners of bartitsu online and it doesn't look as goofy as those manual photos make it. Your point about "fighting out of your weight class will get you clobbered" is well taken. Serum of langur--brilliant.

    On an unrelated note, Ms. Ketelsen is proving herself to be the go-to source for "Elementary" news. As the British acting community is relatively small, and Miller and Cumberbatch are mates, I'm hoping for some mind-blowing guest stars next season. And CBS is the home for Sherlockians of all stripes tonight. Not only do we have "Elementary" but Cumberbatch on Letterman.

  3. If I were rich I would pay off all British actors not to take roles in that stinker of a show. Oh, hey! Perhaps we can get crowd funding for that?