Before we begin, may I take a moment to bask in the fact that this series started with A Study in Scarlet and ended with “His Last Bow”?
Thank you for indulging me. Let’s continue.
As you know, previous movies in this series have examined how Holmes and Watson react to a burgeoning friendship, loss, and romantic love. As the title suggests, this movie concerns itself with our indomitable duo trying to adapt to a changing era. The opening titles and rousing credits (a march set to old movie footage of airplanes, military parades, etc.) waste no time in letting the viewer know that we’re not in “the good old days” anymore. It’s a new era, and by now we’re invested in learning whether or not out old friends will survive in this new age or drift away into obscurity.
Many people forget that the original Holmes stories were published right through World War One. In later stories, we learn that the flat in Baker Street has a telephone, though Holmes prefers to use the telegraph. The times in which they were written saw huge social and technological changes take place. War broke out on an unprecedented global scale and technology was advancing at a remarkably rapid rate.
The writer and director of “The Twentieth Century Approaches” use this fact to their best advantage. Mostly gone are the ubiquitous horse and buggy: London is full of cars and Watson uses a motorcycle (with convenient sidecar) as his main mode of transportation. Mycroft’s office is the buzzing, ringing, clacking hub you’d expect a head governmental office to be, full of phones and telegraph machines. The scenes in Mycroft’s office are both funny, with Mycroft running around unplugging various instruments and Watson hanging up the ringing phones with impeccable comedic timing, and a powerful way of showing how out-of-place Holmes and Watson are. The final scene of the first installment gives us Watson teaching Holmes how to use a telephone: again, a character-building moment and a sign of a new era.
The personal lives of our heroes have also changed, and the fact that this series was filmed over a period of seven or so years means that the actors have all aged quite visibly, which adds verisimilitude to the proceedings. The two friends don’t see each other as often; little enough that Watson again assigns devious motives to Holmes and his assignation with a German spy, even though he really ought to know better by now. Lestrade is retired (although he ends up involved in the cases anyway). 221b has been taken by new owners, but their old quarters have been shut up by the “late” Mrs. Hudson who it seems never gave up her hopes of turning it into a museum. I can’t tell if this was a translation error or deliberately ambiguous wording in the script, because Mrs. H is, happily, alive and well!
The plot of this movie encompasses many of the political intrigue stories of Conan Doyle: the second stain, engineer’s thumb, Bruce-Partington plans, and the story “His Last Bow” all come into play. They all serve to emphasize both Holmes’s continuing skill at solving crimes in this new society and the heightened stakes involved in this new world of politically motivated criminals. These stolen letters and hapless engineers all have the potential for effecting global catastrophe, something that Watson finds deeply disturbing.
Despite having thwarted so many criminal plans and stopped a German spy, a demoralized Watson gives us a closing speech about his fears for this new century:
“Holmes! I remember those old days. Those murderers, thieves, rapists which you caught last century seem to me as innocent babes compared with the wolves we met recently. One can steal a million, kill a rich grandparent…I can understand that. But I cannot understand a high-ranking rascal who pushes people to war for his own profit. I don’t care if he’s a German baron or an English lord. Can we, you,me, Mrs. Hudson, stop this horror? ”
Solomin sells it, and seeing Watson in his Army uniform so close to the devastation we know is coming is extremely effective. Holmes and Watson end in their usual pose, sitting across from each other in armchairs, but instead of a fireplace they sit in front of a movie screen.
They leave off in front of a cheerful film, in a cautiously hopeful mood about the future. And maybe the answer to helping people in the face of these horrors lies, this time, in Watson’s great gift: storytelling. Holmes has changed lives in the 19th century through his work, and now it’s Watson’s turn to change lives by writing about him and the friendship they shared, bringing happiness, escape, and perhaps even inspiration to readers (and viewers!) in the 20th century and beyond.