Reviews are coming in for the new documentary (available here) and they are good …
Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes reveals an exciting world of Victorian ruffians, garroting panics, militant suffragettes, and physical culture, as well as the colorful life of Bartitsu’s founder Edward Barton-Wright … music by the steampunk band Abney Park creates a moody atmosphere of Victorian danger, excitement, and heroics. Through interviews, re-enactment, archival images, and contemporary footage of neo-Bartitsu students, the “lost” martial art is brought to life.
Here’s the problem – what to do when you love a good punch up, but public brawling is incompatible with your image as an amenable, if damp-stained, man of letters? The answer is “Bartitsu,” a nineteenth-century martial art developed specifically to transform the upright classes into killing machines, and whose unusual history has been revealed in an excellent new documentary …
Update:since the following article was written, the Bartitsu Society has come across this 1901 interview with E.W. Barton-Wright that offers some more information on his conception of “Bartitsu kickboxing”.
E.W. Barton-Wright evidently felt that while both boxing and kicking had their places within Bartitsu, they required substantial modification for use in actual self defence. Unfortunately, he never detailed the nature of his modifications, which leaves this aspect of the Bartitsu curriculum open to speculation based on a set of cryptic hints. This article examines his comments on boxing and kicking and offers some educated guesses about their place in the repertoire.
Barton-Wright was fulsome in his praise of boxing, which was virtually synonymous with the idea of “self defence” in London at the turn of the 20th century. In introducing his radical cross-training concept of Bartitsu, however, he was also careful to point out that even “manly and efficacious” British fisticuffs might not be enough to cope with a determined street attacker who didn’t play by the rules:
If one gets into a row and plays the game in the recognised style of English fair play – with fists – the opponent will very likely rush in and close, in order to avoid a blow. Then comes the moment for wrestling in the secret Japanese way. Instantly the unwary one is caught and thrown so violently that he is placed hors de combat, without even sufficient strength left to retire unassisted from the field. – Barton-Wright, “Black and White Budget” magazine, December 1900
Taken at face value, this comment suggests that the forewarned but unarmed Bartitsu-trained defender would adopt a boxing guard and spar specifically in order to “sucker” their adversary into close quarters. At that point the defender would deploy jiujitsu as a sort of secret weapon. In fact, both of Barton-Wright’s “boxing” scenarios in that article proposed that an unarmed fight might begin with fisticuffs, but would end with jiujitsu:
Again, should it happen that the assailant is a better boxer than oneself, the knowledge of Japanese wrestling will enable one to close and throw him without any risk of getting hurt oneself. – Ibid.
He was less enthusiastic about French kickboxing. While acknowledging that kicking and countering kicks were important aspects of self defence training, he asserted that:
Another branch of Bartitsu is that in which the feet and hands are both employed, which is an adaptation of boxing and Savate. The guards are done in a slightly different style from boxing, being much more numerous as well. The use of the feet is also done quite differently from the French Savate. This latter … is quite useless as a means of self-defence when done in the way Frenchmen employ it. – Ibid.
Another cryptic comment on the subject of kicking in self defence:
Mr. Barton-Wright does not profess to teach his pupils how to kick each other, but merely to know how to be able to return kicks with interest should one be attacked in this manner. – Ibid.
Later, an article in the Pall Mall Gazette also mentioned that the kicking methods adopted at the Bartitsu Club were “somewhat different from the accepted French method.”
In considering Barton-Wright’s comments on savate, it’s worth recalling the traditional Anglo-French rivalry and the middle-class London cultural bias against kicking in self defence as being “un-English”. Also, at a time of very intense nationalism, B-W’s idea that it was socially “permissible” for English gentlemen to learn these foreign skills was still relatively novel and probably not universally accepted. Perhaps B-W deliberately de-emphasised the kicking content of Bartitsu and distanced it from the French method in his articles and lectures as a gesture towards social respectability. Likewise, he may have been attempting to score points by suggesting that the Bartitsu Club was promoting a “new, improved” (even an Anglicised) version of savate.
Both Barton-Wright himself and Bartitsu Club instructor Pierre Vigny were primarily interested in teaching pragmatic self-defence, so it’s likely that neither of them had much time for the balletic, light-contact, high kicking style that was then becoming popular as a bourgeois exercise in Paris. If we take B-W’s comments on kicking literally, then presumably he was simply advocating generic street fighting kicks of no particular national origin.
Several months later, in a lecture for the Japan Society of London, he noted that:
Under Bartitsu is included boxing, or the use of the fist as a hitting medium, the use of the feet both in an offensive and defensive sense, the use of the walking stick as a means of self-defence. Judo and jujitsu, which (are) secret styles of Japanese wrestling, (I) would call close play as applied to self-defence.
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 were scientifically attacked. The same, of course, applied 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. – Barton-Wright, “Jiu jitsu and Judo: the Japanese Art of Self Defence from a British Athletic Point of View”, February 1901
Directly one (sees) a man, one ought to know whether he (is) a man to go for at once, or whether he should be allowed to have first turn and afterwards come in one’s self. – Ibid
This reads as if Barton-Wright was moving towards a more specifically integrated unarmed combat system, perhaps combining the defensive aspects of boxing and savate (guards, slips, parries etc.) with a limited range of punches and kicks. These would be transitional, counter-offensive actions between the preferred ranges of stick fighting and jiujitsu. Thus, again, the unarmed/disarmed Bartitsu practitioner might assume a boxing guard stance and defend/counter according to orthodox Anglo-French styles, but then segue into jiujitsu to actually bring the fight to a close.
Barton-Wright’s articles on “Self Defence with a Walking Stick” include several defence sequences that feature boxing punches and savate kicks, but in each case, the context is the Bartitsu-trained defender countering punching or kicking attacks with his trusty cane. The Black and White Budget article also featured a photograph of Vigny executing what looks like a waist-high front thrust or crescent kick. The implication is that students at the Bartitsu Club might have practiced the basic offensive techniques of boxing and savate partially in order to simulate the types of attacks they might face in the streets; to “role-play” as boxers and savateurs for training purposes.
Barton-Wright’s reference to “more numerous guards”, performed in a “slightly different style” to orthodox boxing, may be significant. It seems highly likely that he and Vigny would have discounted those techniques that relied upon either fighter wearing boxing gloves. If so, they may have been inspired by the older, pre-Queensberry Rules versions of pugilism and savate, which were designed for bare-knuckle fighting and did include a diverse range of guards. Also, Bartitsu defences against unarmed striking attacks were not restricted by the rules of boxing; the counter-attack might be a kick, a punch, a jiujitsu atemi strike, a throw and/or a submission technique.
While the most dangerous stick and jiujitsu techniques could not be fully applied in safe training, via recreational (kick)boxing the Bartitsu practitioner could still attain the sense of timing, distance, contact and unpredictability that can only be honed by unrehearsed sparring.
Due to the speculative nature of canonical Bartitsu (kick)boxing, Bartitsu revivalists tend to take an eclectic approach to their kicking and punching curricula, drawing from various late 19th and early 20th century sources.
Perhaps a pioneer of the Japanese art (of self defence) or a certain version of it was the late Barton-Wright, who studied for some time in Japan, afterwards proceeding to London where he opened an academy and taught what he knew under the name of Bartitsu. He claimed that he had grafted on to the parent stem various shoots of his own invention or culled from other schools in different parts of the world. Without doubt Mr. Barton-Wright was a colourful personality in his day and generation and could give a very good account of himself against all and sundry lacking knowledge of either jujutsu or judo. This splendid veteran passed away only a few years ago, on the threshold of his tenth decade.
Previous screen incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective have often downplayed Sherlock Holmes’ talents as an athlete and combatant. However, according to the canon, the Great Detective was a skilled boxer, fencer and singlestick player, whose “knowledge of baritsu” famously saved his life in mortal combat with Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. “Baritsu”, of course, is understood to have referred to the real martial art of Bartitsu.
“In the novels, the fights are often referred to off-stage; we will bring them on-stage,” explains co-screenwriter, Lionel Wigram.
Sixteen years ago I spent time in LA and whilst there swapped training with Eric Oram who I met through the Society of American Fight Directors. Eric practiced Wing Chun Kung Fu, which he studied with William Cheung, and I had the eclectic background that many fight directors have; I have studied a variety of eastern and western martial arts (in particular Aiki-jitsu and Classical Fencing) as well as stage combat.
Eric and I got on really well and had always spoken about working on a project together but despite a couple of near misses had yet to do so.
In the intervening years I’d established myself as a fight coordinator in the UK. Over time I managed to build a resume that included some big budget studio films.
Eric had continued to train and study Wing Chun becoming a Sifu (instructor) as well as one of that art’s pre-eminent practitioners. His Kwoon (school) was now well established and one of his students was Robert Downey Jr. Downey spoke to Eric about the possibility of using Wing Chun as the base of Sherlock’s fighting style. Eric didn’t know the film world in the UK and wasn’t sure he had the film experience for Holmes’ and the other fights. Also Warner Brothers would require someone with proven credits for such a gig, so Eric suggested bringing someone else on board and Downey, who I had met shortly after the release of Troy, said “well, what about your friend Richard?”
A couple of phone calls later I was on board … “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”.
T.W. – Were you a Sherlock Holmes fan before you started work on the movie?
R.R. – Yes, I was. I have read the complete works on a couple of occasions as well as individual stories. Of course I was familiar with the Rathbone and Brett interpretations as well as those paying homage, such as Gene Wilder’s in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother, which includes a brilliant fight by William Hobbs.
T.W. – That was a great scene; it was one of the few prior movies to show Holmes as a skilled fighter as well as a master detective. So, what was your process of researching Victorian fighting styles in preparation for the movie?
R.R. – I went to my library and took both Captain Alfred Hutton’s and Egerton Castle’s books off the shelf (1). I dug out videotape of French Cane, which was in my archive along with notes on fighting with an umbrella (I had been given an impromptu class years ago after fencing in a competition with the Metropolitan Police).
In addition, I was already familiar with your work in the area of Bartitsu and had a copy of the Bartitsu Compendium, which I re-read.
T.W. – That leads us to the next question; can you talk us through your original concepts for the fight scenes as they were described in the script?
R.R. – This film wasn’t one where all the fights were laid out in advance and remained fixed. Indeed, like something from Holmes’ casebook, there was a lot of investigation to find the martial methodology and style for Holmes, Watson and the other characters that fought. This was due to trying to get in step with the contemporary aesthetic of the film, Guy’s way of working, how Downey and Law saw their characters, the evolving nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson, script revisions, etc, etc.
As the overall narrative of the film relies upon there being a close bond between Watson and Holmes, it seemed to me essential that, in addition to it being in the text, we realize that partnership in a physical, unspoken way that the audience would recognize.
I knew we wanted to use the fights involving Holmes & Watson to establish them as a team. It was important that they be pro-active in doing the right thing, taking the fighting to the bad guys but enjoying the physical (culture) and relishing the adrenaline rush.
The principal places for this were in the opening sequence in the Crypt, the fight at Reardon’s digs and the fight in the “Sewer”. In all of these we wanted to utilize them as a team either fighting side by side or combining to overcome the obstacles before them.
T.W. – What about that big showdown between Holmes and Blackwood at the end?
R.R. – The final fight, on Tower Bridge, remained fairly fixed in concept all the way through. Having seen Holmes best everyone he fought he now comes face to face with the main antagonist of the piece and they go at it. I had to show elements of Holmes reacting to the danger, working out what he would do to counter the threat whilst getting the device that all were after at that point in the narrative. All whilst on a partially built Tower Bridge that is 200 feet up. In actuality it was 30 feet, in front of a green screen.
T.W.– The fact that Doyle’s “baritsu” is not Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu must have offered considerable artistic license. Was there any particular relationship between the movie’s fictional baritsu and the historical Bartitsu?
R.R. – Bartitsu, as you are acutely aware, is a mixed martial art involving boxing, ju-jitsu, savate, stickfighting and swordplay that was popular at the turn of the 20th century. In developing our Holmes combat style we wanted to use a neo-Bartitsu that was in keeping with the film’s contemporary aesthetic. To do this we chose to utilize the Chinese boxing that Downey practices as the foundation and also incorporate swordplay and elements of Brazilian ju-jitsu, which Ritchie practices. (2)
In this film Holmes only meets Moriarty fleetingly so if we were to introduce a form of Bartitsu it needed to be without the aid of Moriarty and within the structure of this ‘introductory’ episode of Sherlock Holmes.
Bartitsu for him 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.
T.W. – Shades of E.W. Barton-Wright encouraging his students to cross-train between all the different styles taught at the Bartitsu Club.
So I’m gathering that the movie “baritsu” was a combination of various influences, choreographed with a contemporary edge?
R.R. – 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.
This premise enabled us to construct fights, particularly the “Punch Bowl” fight, that demonstrate Holmes utilising various martial aspects and how, when under pressure, he was able to focus his mind, body and spirit to overcome a problem.
During the “Punch Bowl” fight Holmes sees Irene Adler and tries to concede the fight in order to pursue her. McMurdo (his opponent) rejects Holmes’ offered handshake and spits at him. This moment gave us the trigger to show Holmes’ intellectual clarity of purpose reflected in a physical way that would establish a key character element how Holmes lives.
On occasion we hear Holmes’ inner thoughts as he determines how he will defeat his opponent, what the physical repercussions of each blow will be and how long they will be out of action as a result of them.
T.W. – It’s an interesting device, making the audience privy to Holmes’ battle plan as it’s formulated a split-second before he goes into action. We don’t often get that sort of clinical detail in a movie fight scene. It’s also illuminating as to Holmes’ character.
R.R. – In his defeat of McMurdo, at the “Punch Bowl”, we wanted to have Holmes do enough to win but also to harness his anger at McMurdo’s behavior and teach him an important lesson about life without crossing over into being vindictive.
The practicalities of this meant we needed to make this ‘pre-visualized’ part of the fight extremely visceral. The way in which Ritchie planned to film the scene (with a high speed Phantom camera) meant we would see each impact as the strikes landed, so we had to plan for robust physical contact.
We constructed a fight that had Holmes block the blows coming at him and deliver a number of precise, hard, blows that would have the viewer wince in recognized pain.
The challenge then was ensuring we had the right performer as McMurdo. A British stunt performer, Dave Garrick, was cast in the role and he did a terrific job, throwing punches at Downey only to have them blocked and a sharp crisp counter-strike hit him. It was a very tough physical day for both he and Downey as although not full out, the blocks and strikes were real.
T.W. – I hope viewers will spare a thought for Mr. Garrick, then!
R.R. – While this visceral, dynamic fight, which gives us our first proper look at this action aspect of Holmes, involved only two people in performance, it was the product of collaboration from a fight team that included myself, Eric Oram (fight consultant), Franklin Henson (stunt coordinator), Dave Garrick and the erudite input of Robert Downey Jr. and Guy Ritchie.
T.W. -That’s good to hear. People sometimes don’t appreciate the degree to which movie action scenes are collaborations between specialists.
How were the actors and stunt performers trained for their roles?
R.R. – We had “Fight Club”, where in addition to rehearsals for specific scenes there were Wing Chun sessions, swordplay and, on occasion, ju-jitsu with Guy.
Robert trains most days either in the gym and/or practicing Wing Chun. In addition he had fight rehearsals on a regular basis. Jude Law and Mark Strong also work out on a regular basis.
They had fight rehearsals with me and these were structured around what was coming up next, so they peaked in their fight training just as we were scheduled to film each scene.
T.W. – Finally, I have to ask – what was it like working on an action film in which both the director and lead actor are martial arts enthusiasts?
R.R. – A team full of martial artists and creative artists! It was a wonderful, brilliant and occasionally frustrating time. We all had something positive to contribute and all were able to demonstrate what we meant.
The obvious hazard with such a situation is that you have “too many chefs and not enough Indians”.
In this instance, though, I believe it worked as we were all working to the same end. As with any new work situation, there is a period of adjustment at the beginning as you figure out the particular work dynamic, but fairly quickly we got to a place where we could and would be able to amend and change choreography according to any changing circumstance or script change that came up at the 11th hour.
We played and explored from the first day of rehearsals to the last day of shooting. Always allowing for improvement or suggestion. One of my favourite memories is Downey saying after I demonstrated the final fight on Tower Bridge “It’s brilliant, perfect” … and then adding with a wry smile, “let’s change it!”
(1) – Captain Hutton was an instructor at E.W. Barton-Wright’s martial arts school in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, where he taught foil, epee and sabre fencing. Hutton’s students included actors and soldiers, who he trained in the skills of Elizabethan-era fencing. In 1901 he described the Bartitsu Club as being “the headquarters of ancient swordplay in England”.
(2) – Although the resemblance is probably co-incidental, many of the techniques of Wing Chun kung fu are notably similar to those of late 19th century “gentlemanly fisticuffs”. Both styles feature erect fighting stances, vertical fist punches and an emphasis upon protecting the central line of the body. The newaza (ground grappling) of Brazilian ju-jitsu closely resembles that of the eclectic “British ju-jitsu” that arose before the First World War.
The Bartitsu course was divided into two three-hour classes held on days 2 and 3 of the conference, and was well attended on both days (14 participants.)
We started with a precis discussion of E.W. Barton-Wright, the Bartitsu Club era and the Sherlock Holmes connection. The participants then proceeded into a fairly quick study of the three themes of alignment control, initiative control and adaptability, using as examples the left-lead off and counters from scientific boxing, the coup de pied bas and chasse bas kicks of savate and two canonical jiujitsu defence sequences. The rest of this session covered a representative sample of canonical Bartitsu walking cane defence sequences, focusing on the straight or ball-handled cane.
Day 2 began with a discussion of Edith Garrud and the “Jiujitsuffragettes”,
progressed into a selection of crook-handled cane defences and then into the “twist” and “segue” exercises, as detailed in Volume II of the Bartitsu Compendium, applied to many of the canonical sequences that had ben practiced up til then. The “defenders” were challenged to spontaneously adapt their set-play defences in response to their first intention being defeated by the “attacker”, leading towards controlled, self defence oriented sparring scenarios.
During this class I was honoured to be joined by Mark Donnelly who has been teaching Bartitsu in England for a number of years. Mark and I had never worked together before, and I am very happy to report that he is a great asset to the international Bartitsu community; an excellent instructor, historian and martial artist. He has recently moved to the US and I’m looking forward to more collaborations with him in the future.
Since our early September update, the Bartitsu Society has been in contact with the upcoming Sherlock Holmes movie production and has donated copies of both volumes of the Bartitsu Compendium to the project. Of course, this does not mean that what appears in the movie fight scenes will be verbatim Bartitsu, but it’s nice to know that the fight team has access to authentic historical sources for use as inspiration.
I like the idea that (Holmes is) as visceral as he is intellectual. It’s true to the origins of the narrative. He was a martial artist. He did something called Bartitsu, which wasn’t necessarily exposed or utilized in other productions. So we’ve made more of a meal out of that. He’s an intellectual action man, which is pretty consistent with his origins.
This footage was recorded at the International Swordfighting and Martial Arts Conference in Michigan, USA, between July 12-15, 2007. It features a series of mostly canonical Bartitsu unarmed combat and cane demonstrations by myself, with Kirk Lawson assisting.
The theme of the seminar was to use a small selection of canonical and some neo-Bartitsu techniques and sequences to explore two major principles:
1) alignment control, or using your own weight and skeletal structure to disrupt the opponent’s balance and 2) initiative control, either by inviting a particular attack or by executing a pre-emptive attack to control the opponent’s options and movement.
Thus, we were primarily using these sequences as academic examples of certain technical and tactical options, rather than as self defence or competition sequences per se.
The defence between 00.56 and 01.00 is a neo-Bartitsu improvisation combining a number of techniques (palm-heels, a trachea grab, low stamping kick etc.) to reinforce the theme of controlling the opponent’s balance and skeletal alignment.
Thanks to Bartitsu Society member Chris Amendola for editing the footage.
There is a tendency for those looking at Bartitsu to pay especial attention to the jiu-jitsu parts of it, and to discount the necessity of both boxing and savate skills. As Tony reminded us in a recent post to the mailing list, Barton-Wright’s lecture to the Japan Society raised this very point:
In order to ensure as far as it was possible immunity against injury in cowardly attacks or quarrels, they 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 were scientifically attacked. The same, of course, applied to the use of the foot or the stick.