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.

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.

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.

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.

Suffragette Self-Defence

In this short scene from the 2015 movie Suffragette, newly militant Maude Watts (Carey Mulligan) receives her first lesson in jiujitsu from Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter).

In real history, Edith Garrud served as the self-defence trainer for the secret Bodyguard Society of the Women’s Social and Political Union, whose duties included physically protecting suffragette leaders from arrest and assault.

Un breve documental en español sobre Bartitsu

Bartitsu el arte marcial del Detective Sherlock Holmes Creado por Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, interpretado por Robert Downey Jr en el 2009, experto en el arte marcial Bartitsu. El actor, Robert Downey Jr, practico Wing Chun, pero el personaje Sherlock Holmes es experto en Bartitsu. Arte Marcial de origen europeo y practicado por la clase alta es reconocido por ser el sistema de defensa personal utilizado por Sherlock Holmes en sus enfrentamientos de la época.

* Incorporating video demonstrations from the Academie Duello and the Bartitsu Club of New York City.

Charles Charlemont’s students demonstrate savate and la canne (1928)

This newly-released sound film from the Fox Movietone Archive shows training drills and bouting by students of Professor Charles Charlemont.

At the turn of the 20th century, Charlemont had been involved in two controversies that have some bearing on Bartitsu history. The first instance dated to October 10th of 1899, when Charlemont had represented la boxe Francaise against English pugilist Jerry Driscoll in a savate vs. boxing contest in Paris. Professor Charlemont won that fight under extremely dubious conditions; his father Joseph had been one of the judges, the referee and timekeeper were widely judged to have been woefully incompetent and Charlemont’s TKO victory was generally held to have been due to an accidental but illegal groin kick.

Co-inciding with E.W. Barton-Wright’s early promotions of Bartitsu in London and occurring shortly after Professor D’armoric’s ill-received savate demonstrations at the Alhambra music hall, the infamy of the Charlemont-Driscoll fight is highly likely to have influenced Barton-Wright’s various disparaging comments regarding “kicking as the French do it”.

In late 1901, Charlemont became involved in a vehement public spat with Barton-Wright over the promotion of Bartitsu Club instructor Pierre Vigny as the “world’s champion” of savate and stick fighting. In a series of tit-for-tat letters published via French and English sporting journals, Charlemont asserted the Vigny held no real claim to those titles, while Barton-Wright vigorously defended the latter and ended up challenging Charlemont to a prize-fight on Vigny’s behalf.

Charlemont refused the challenge to fight, pointing out that he was a professor of savate and not a pugilist – a reference to his cherished status as an amateur, which would have been lost had he consented to fighting for stakes. Barton-Wright then threatened to send Vigny to Paris to “publicly horse-whip” Charlemont – an extraordinarily vehement remark for public correspondence in 1901. Perhaps fortunately, nothing came of the challenge nor the threatened horse-whipping; both Charlemont and Vigny enjoyed long careers in their chosen professions, but there was clearly no great love lost between them.

The Story of the Jujitsuffragettes, Courtesy of “Drunk History UK”

In these excerpts from a recent episode of “Drunk History UK”, inebriated comedienne Luisa Omielan attempts to relate the history of the jujitsu-trained suffragette Bodyguard team:

Bonus points for the casting of actress and real-life suffragette history enthusiast Jessica Hynes as WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

Ms. Omielan also struggled valiantly to recall the name of suffragette jujitsu trainer Edith Garrud, finally settling on “Gertrude” before being gently corrected by an off-screen colleague. She was probably confused by the similarity of names between Garrud and Gertrude Harding, who was, in fact, the main organiser of Mrs. Pankhurst’s security vanguard.

The episode also included a semi-accurate re-enactment of a confrontation between the Bodyguard and the police during one of Mrs. Pankhurst’s public rallies in Camden Square: