A Memoir of the Production of “Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes”

By Tony Wolf

My friend Ran Braun, who is a fight choreographer and also a prominent stage director of operas in Europe, first proposed the idea of a Bartitsu documentary in early 2009.  We developed some concepts via email, but then both became busy with other projects.

In August of that year, Ran organized a three week Bartitsu and stage combat seminar tour for me in Italy.  I arrived at the first venue, which was a brand new sports center in the middle of Rome, and was surprised to meet a professional film crew there along with the students.

Tony Wolf (right) demonstrates a Vigny stick fighting “guard by distance” during the Rome seminar.

An opportunity had suddenly come up, virtually while I was in transit, and Ran had contacted some cultural associations and production companies including the Digital Room, Cletarte and Broken Art.  They offered the basic technical and logistical means to start producing a documentary about Bartitsu, but because it had all happened so quickly, we didn’t have a script nor even a storyboard prepared.

Ran Braun and Rocco M. Franco re-enact a private Bartitsu lesson circa 1900 in this sequence filmed at the Palazzo delle Clarisse in Amantea, Italy.

Without a script, everything was ad hoc; we started shooting sequences that we could organise in our downtime during the seminar tour, brainstorming and improvising shoots at various exotic locations.  As the de facto on-camera host – which was not a role I would have chosen for myself, under normal circumstances – I remember standing on a balcony of the Palazzo delle Clarisse overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, facing the camera and having to begin a monologue with the generic segue “… and so we find ourselves here …”, trusting that there would, eventually, be a script to justify the transition.

A spectacular location shoot in Amantea.

I also recall wandering through the streets of Amantea one warm evening, gazing up at the ancient castles on the hills and trying to figure out how to tie location shoots in this beautiful Italian seaside resort in to our then-scriptless documentary about an obscure Victorian English martial art.  I realised that the best link was actually the Italian concept of rievocazion; the artistic revival of cultural heritage.  That realisation inspired one of the major themes of the documentary.

Simultaneously, I realised that I was going to have to return to Europe in the near future.

A still from an animatic of Yukio Tani (left) throwing an English wrestler.

The next few months were a blur of activity, because at that stage we were hoping to release the documentary in late December to coincide with Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movie.  I returned to the USA for about two weeks, wrote a script, bought video equipment and started organizing second-unit shoots and interviews, re-enactments, image archives, animations, etc.

The project quickly generated a lot of buzz, and many people were very generous with their time and talents. Second-unit location shoots were arranged in the UK and USA, including both martial arts demonstrations and interviews with luminaries such as speculative fiction author Neal Stephenson and mystery writer Will Thomas, both of whom were also Bartitsu enthusiasts.  Ran arranged the musical score with input from his colleagues, and we were also given permission to use instrumental tracks by the famed steampunk band Abney Park.

I then flew back to Europe and traveled with Ran to Meiringen in the Swiss Alps for a shoot at the famous Reichenbach Falls, where Holmes used his “baritsu” against Moriarty. I’d never driven through the Alps before – it’s a shattering, vertiginous landscape, with valleys full of massive boulders that have rolled down off the mountains.

We booked in to a Meiringen hotel late in the evening and were woken the next morning by somone in the vicinity practicing his yodeling – welcome to Switzerland!   We then figured out how to get up to the Reichenbach Falls, which involves riding a terrific Victorian-era cable car a long way up one of the mountains. The falls are actually a series of cascades, with the biggest one – where Holmes grappled with Moriarty – perhaps half-way up the heavily-forested slopes.

We arrived at the cable car station, which offered a nice view, but it was at that point that we discovered that a local hydroelectric power company was channelling water from the river that feeds the falls. Apparently they regularly do this at at certain times of the year, including, unfortunately, when we were there. So, yes, it was a large waterfall, but it was pretty far from the roaring, boiling chasm that Dr. Watson had so vividly described.

We had a long hike up, over and around the waterfall until we arrived at the “baritsu spot”, where Holmes and Moriarty (notionally) fought to the death.  It’s at the end of a narrow path cut into the cliff face on the opposite side from the cable car station. Apparently the path used to extend almost within touching distance of the actual waterfall, but landslides have changed the topography over the past hundred-odd years. We shot our intro sequence there, then made our way back down the mountain into Meiringen township.

The town makes the most of its Sherlock Holmes connection – they have a great little Holmes museum and a fine bronze statue of the Great Detective. We spent the rest of the day doing pickup shots of Holmes-related Meiringen sights and scenic shots of the mountains.

The next day I flew to London to film further location shoots and interviews. The exterior shots in London were all “guerilla style”, of course, which was a great test of nerve and ingenuity. I visited the Holmes Museum in Baker Street, where an elderly actor playing Doctor Watson regaled me with an impressive in-character summary of the Final Problem plot. I wish we could have used part of that speech in the documentary.

Guerilla film-making: Tony Wolf addresses the camera in London.

We managed some quick “talking head” presentations in front of #67 Shaftesbury Avenue, where the original Bartitsu Club had been headquartered. The building now houses the Shaftesbury Best Western Hotel, but it’s much the same as it was back in Barton-Wright’s day, having been narrowly missed by a German bomb during the Second World War. Additional shoots took place at locations including the exterior of the Surbiton flat where Barton-Wright had spent his final years, and – soberingly – at Surrey’s Kingston Cemetery, where Barton-Wright was interred in an un-marked “pauper’s grave”.  Sadly, because it is impossible to pinpoint exactly where an individual is buried in one of these communal plots, local ordinances do not allow memorial markers to be placed there, so instead I laid a small bouquet of white flowers at the base of a nearby tree.

Then I took a train to the Northern English village of Haltwhistle, near the Scottish border, to record some additional interviews and, during a free afternoon, navigate through a wandering herd of cattle en route to walking along a section of Hadrian’s Wall.

After I returned to the US, however, it quickly became obvious that, even given the terrific run of enthusiasm and luck that carried us through that initial production period, there was simply no way we could produce the entire documentary before Christmas.  We were, however, able to develop a successful trailer for the project:

Early and mid-2010 were marked by a series of false starts and technical problems.  These issues are typical of most media projects, but they were compounded by the fact that we were producing an independent multi-media documentary, staffed entirely by volunteers spread between several countries. There would be intense bursts of activity – including filming a re-enactment of a circa 1914 suffragette jiujitsu training session – followed by long delays as DVD packages of raw footage went missing in transit, personnel left the project, etc.

During post-production my father, Michael, and wife, Kathrynne – who were both professional actors and voiceover specialists – were prevailed upon to record in-character narration for the documentary, all taken verbatim from speeches and articles written during the heyday of the Bartitsu Club.  Kat provided the voice of Mary Nugent, the Edwardian-era journalist whose article “Barton-Wright and His Japanese Wrestlers” offered shrewd insight into E.W. Barton-Wright’s character.  My father performed the voices of Barton-Wright, Dr. John Watson, an anonymous c1900 newspaper reporter and Captain Alfred Hutton, giving each of them different accents and delivery styles – a significant feat of vocal gymnastics!

We regained out momentum in September. In Rome, our colleagues and co-producers at Broken Art, Paolo Paparella and Angelica Pedatella, collaborated with editor Emanuele Pisasale during post-production, and there was a very great deal of communication back and forth between Italy and the USA. Meanwhile, I had arranged an art contest that produced some lovely cover art for the DVD, and a publishing deal with the Freelance Academy Press, while continuing to gather seminar footage from the US and Italy to represent the Bartitsu revival.

Co-producer/director Ran Braun checks camera angles while filming a Bartitsu stick fighting demonstration in Italy.

The documentary DVD finally launched in March of 2011. It gathered some great reviews, which were very gratifying to those of us who had been working so long and hard behind the scenes. With permission of the producers, Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes has subsequently been publicly screened at a number of libraries, Western martial arts conferences and similar events. It is available on DVD from the Freelance Academy Press.

How To Make A Kingsman-Style Gunbrella (Sort Of)

In honour of (and to help promote) the upcoming release of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Hacksmith YouTube channel has been challenged to create a Kingsman-style weaponised umbrella:

In the pedantic interests of accuracy, the “good quality umbrella” that serves as a zipline grapple and destructive melee weapon early in the video is clearly an Unbreakable Umbrella, featuring a solid, high-strength shaft and reinforced fittings. Unbreakable Umbrellas are specifically designed for self-defence. The brolly that is then shown being modified into a gunbrella, on the other hand, is of the standard, hollow-shafted variety.

The results are undeniably impressive, but the world still awaits a combat umbrella that can both shoot metal slugs and smash through a microwave oven.

“A Jiu-Jitsu Battle Royale in Paris”: Tani vs. Higashi (1905)

Above: Katsukuma Higashi (left) and Yukio Tani.

The following two accounts offer a fairly complete record of the controversial 29 November, 1905 jiujitsu match between former Bartitsu Club instructor Yukio Tani and Tsutsumi Hōzan-ryū stylist Katsukuma Higashi. Taking place in Paris shortly after the famous jiujitsu vs. savate contest between “Re-Nie” (Ernest Regnier) and Georges Dubois, the Tani/Higashi match ended in a near-riot, leading to talk of French authorities banning similar contests in the future.

Daily Telegraph & Courier (London) – 2nd December 1905

Sporting Life – 6th December 1905

“How Sir Hiram Maxim Met the Hooligan” (St James’s Gazette, 24 June 1902)

In which the estimable inventor Hiram Maxim, best-remembered today for devising the world’s first portable machine gun, tells of how he fended off a London hooligan with his fists and trusty umbrella.

Sir Hiram S. Maxim, who says he has had three encounters with hooligans, writes to say that when walking from Southfields Station to attend a garden party at Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon last, he was struck several times with a ball flung by boys. Lady Maxim took the ball, and Sir Hiram later returned it to the boys.

“I thought no more of the matter” (says Sir Hiram) “until I saw a large and powerful man come running after us. He approached me, exclaiming something about “boys and cad,” which I didn’t exactly understand, and at once made a rush at me, aiming a very heavy blow at my face.

Fortunately I had, in my younger days, been a good boxer, and I warded off his blow, at the same time giving him a sharp blow across the face with a strong and closely-folded umbrella that I happened to have in my right hand.

He made several more rushes, each time only to receive a stinging blow in the face. Although I had successfully warded off all his mad rushes, and he had not succeeded in touching me, still I was soon very short of breath, and thought of what the doctor had said.

At this time he was standing some 12 feet away, and then gathering himself together, he made one more desperate lunge. This time I brought my umbrella to the charge as soldier does his gun, and summoning all my remaining strength I gave him a powerful thrust in the pit of his stomach. The umbrella, which had stood the racket up to this point, collapsed, the staff being broken in three pieces and the frame smashed, but it knocked the wind out of the ruffian, and I left him doubled and trying to get his breath.

In looking over the wreck of the umbrella I find that the tip of it is gone, and Lady Maxim suggests that the man may have carried it off, and that there is still a possibility of my being arrested for manslaughter!”

Sir Hiram says he has been told that, as a good citizen, he ought to report to the police, but Lady Maxim says the man has received quite punishment enough.

“What ought I to do?”

The Gentlemanly Art of 19th Century Cane Fighting in … 1990s Russia!?

The 1990 Russian sociopolitical satire Bakenbardy (“Side-whiskers”) is distinguished as the only feature film in which walking stick fighting serves as a crucial plot device.  It’s also a pertinent warning as to how youthful enthusiasm can be perverted by authoritarian impulses into something dark and ugly.

The story revolves around two fire-eyed young men who are seeking to save their country’s soul by returning it to the mores of the early 19th century.  Inspired by the figure of Russian intellectual and duellist Alexander Pushkin, they affect sideburns, wide-brimmed felt hats and capes and habitually carry ball-handled canes, with which both are expert combatants. Pushkin, incidentally, was known to carry an iron walking cane to strengthen his right arm.

Trying to help the citizens of a town beset by a decadent cult of bohemian artists, one of the neo-Pushkinites gets into an alley-fight with members of the rough-house “Tusks” gang:

Realising that the Tusks’ youth and aggression might be harnessed to their own ends, the neo-Pushkinites then further impress the gang with their panache and fighting prowess. Staging a takeover, they gradually transform the Tusks into a disciplined “Pushkin Club”, well-trained in Russian Romantic poetry and in the art of walking-cane combat:

… with which they violently rout the bohemians in a disturbing “Night of the Long Canes”:

Power corrupts and, now viewing anyone who does not love Pushkin as a depraved enemy of their New Order, the fanatical Pushkin Gang turns against the citizens of the town their founders were originally trying to save:

The resulting riot leads to their own downfall and humiliation at the hands of the state, after which, inevitably, a new stickfighting gang rises to take their place.

Produced at a time when many Russians were concerned about the rise of militantly ideological youth groups, the darkly satiric morality play of Bakenbardy is painfully relevant today.

Bartitsu Seminar at Autumnfecht (Maryland, USA)

Instructor Chris Dyer will be teaching a Bartitsu seminar at the Autumnfecht HEMA event in Columbia, Maryland on November 4, 2017.

Class description:

Explore the gentleman’s art of self-defense! Bartitsu is a practical style of self-defense with an emphasis on scientific principles to overcome an attacker. The growing threat of street gangs in Victorian and Edwardian London was the catalyst behind the creation of Bartitsu. Named after its creator, Edward William Barton-Wright, Bartitsu incorporates bare-knuckled boxing, French kicking, Japanese jujitsu, and stick fighting to suppress attacks from single ruffians and gangs alike. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle named Bartitsu as Sherlock Holmes’ means of defeating his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Students will learn a number of choreographed techniques showcasing a variety of Bartitsu methods.

No experience or equipment required. Period dress is not required, but encouraged.

Please click here for further information and registration.

Umbrella vs. Knife in a Hamburg Back-alley (Swing Kids, 1993)

In this short fight scene from the movie Swing Kids, Peter Müller (Christian Bale) takes on a knife-wielding member of the Hitlerjugend, applying some deft umbrella techniques that will be recognisable to Bartitsu aficionados.

In real history, the laissez-faire Swingjugend – who much preferred American jazz and English fashions to the crushing conformity of Nazism – frequently did engage in street fights with the Hitler Youth.

“The Claims of Ju-Jitsu” (The Sportsman, 4th May 1906)

Above: a technical illustration from Percy Longhurst’s article “Has the Boxer Any Chance Agaainst the Ju-jitsuite?” (1906)

The following letter to the editor of The Sportsman was written during the ongoing “jujitsu vs. boxing” controversy of 1906-7.

The “boxing vs. jujitsu” debate was typically argued from a theoretical point of view, the consensus being that, as the Sportsman correspondent notes, a true contest between those styles would not be allowed in London at that time.  Although Pierre Vigny himself also publicly challenged a jujitsuka, nothing came of it; however, about a year before the above letter was published, another French savateur had tried conclusions against Japanese unarmed combat.

It’s worth noting that experimental contests of this nature probably had been carried out “behind closed doors” in London, as evidenced by the pragmatic assessments offered by E.W. Barton-Wright and Percy Longhurst, both of whom allowed that each method had its advantages and advocated for a fusion approach.

In his February, 1901 lecture for the Japan Society of London, Barton-Wright said:

In order to ensure as far as it was possible immunity against injury in cowardly attacks or quarrels, (one) must understand boxing in order to thoroughly appreciate the danger and rapidity of a well-directed blow, and the particular parts of the body which are scientifically attacked. The same, of course, applies to the use of the foot or the stick …

Judo and jiujitsu are not designed as primary means of attack and defence against a boxer or a man who kicks you, but (are) only supposed to be used after coming to close quarters, and in order to get to close quarters, it is absolutely necessary to understand boxing and the use of the foot.

Some years later, Longhurst amplified Barton-Wright’s realistic take on the boxing vs. jujitsu scenario via an article for Sandow’s Magazine, titled “Has the boxer any chance against the jujitsuite?”, which was re-published in the second volume of the Bartitsu Compendium (2008).

John Steed’s Umbrella-Fu

Secret agent John Steed (Ralph Fiennes) wields a mean brolly in this training sequence from The Avengers (1998). Steed’s impeccable umbrella-fu was probably the most entertaining part of the movie, which bombed at the box office.

See here for further information on Steed’s weaponised umbrella as featured in the classic Avengers TV series, starring Patrick Macnee.

“Victory of the Foreigner”: Pierre Vigny vs. Professor Perkins (May, 1899)

This newly-discovered article from the Sporting Life of 24 May, 1899 records one of Pierre Vigny’s first public foray into the London antagonistics scene.  

Above: Pierre Vigny adopts the regulation Marquis of Queensberry stance.
Professor Perkins (England) vs. Professor Vigny (Switzerland)

Six Rounds Hardly Fought With 6-oz Gloves

At a snug and luxurious retreat in a swell part of London, about thirty sportsmen met to see the above two men do battle after the Marquis of Queensberry’s rules. With Bat Mullins as timekeeper, and M. Skeate as judge, the affair was entire success.  A difference of age told its own tale, although the loser took his gruel like a man.

Professor Vigny hails from France, where he first saw the light in 1865, but he has settled down in Switzerland. He is a strong, strapping fighter, who makes deadly use of his left. He has boxed with most of the European professors, and means touring through England so as to gain experience. He can use foils, fleurets, swords, singlesticks, and is expert in French and English boxing.

Professor Perkins is teacher of boxing to the Brigade of Foot Guards and 2nd Life Guards. He hails from Cornwall (same parish as Fitzsimmons), is forty-two years of age, scales 12st 8oz. (2 lb. more than his opponent), and has done battle with Tom Lees (Australia). Peter McCoy (New York), Jim Kane (Californian Giant), and many others.

THE CONTEST.—VIGNY WINS.

Both looked hard as nails as they stripped, very little time being lost ere they shaped up for

Round 1.—The visitor landed several times on face and chest, Perkins going for the body.

Round 2.—Animated sparring on both sides, and hard hitting characterised this bout, both playing for opening. Slightly in favour the Swiss was this round.

Round 3.—Savage slogging, the visitor being cautioned for hitting low. A give and take set-to made honours easy.

Round 4.—Both looked anxious and sparred for a breather, the time expiring with little done.

Round 6.—Fast fighting and hard hitting by the Swiss, who stood, then crouched as he lashed out, his left getting dangerously near to Perkin’s heart. Little to choose at the close of three minutes.

Round 6 and last.—ln-fighting by Vigny, who tried repeatedly for the knock-out blow. Down went Perkins, he rising and appeared groggy. Warming to his work he did his best, only to lose a game battle which was credit to both the men.

After winning this fight, Vigny remained in London where he gave a series of fencing and self-defence exhibitions including several organised by E.W. Barton-Wright.  Vigny later became the Chief Instructor at Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Physical Culture, where he taught savate and walking stick defence.