Let’s face it: Hollywood without spies would be like comedy without politicians. I grew up watching James Bond movies. To that extent I suppose I never grew up. To imagine popular culture without James Bond, or Jack Ryan, or Sydney Bristow, or Maxwell Smart or Agent 99 — it’s depressing. People need heroes, especially fantasy heroes. They never disappoint.
Yet, there was a time when 007 didn’t exist. That dark age included the Second World War, when Nazi Germany was bombing British cities into rubble. So what fantasy hero emerged to match wits with the Nazi monsters?
Yes, the great detective of the 19th century was time-traveled into the 20th, and even brought along Dr. Watson. The first such movie was in 1942, entitled Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. Holmes’ mission: find a Nazi propagandist broadcasting a demoralizing radio program that gleefully predicts acts of sabotage in England just before they occur. (The basic story had some basis in fact: just as American GIs heard enemy radio programs from disc jockeys named Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose, the British heard broadcasts from a Fascist named “Lord Haw-Haw.”) Holmes, played by Basil Rathbone, uses his deductive powers to expose a longtime German spy disguised as a British high official, concealed for decades by subterfuge and plastic surgery.
We think of Holmes and Bond as British characters, which they are, but their adventures might never have reached the silver screen without the money and magic of America’s Hollywood. In 1942, America and Britain were the closest of wartime allies, and so American audiences loved Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. They even appreciated Holmes’ ultra-patriotic monologues about England. Yet, for a time, British government censors actually kept this film out of British theaters (oops, I ought to spell that theatres). When British audiences were at last allowed to see it, they were outraged. Not by the idea of a mid-20th century Sherlock Holmes; they expected that. They were outraged that Holmes discovers an enemy spy so deep inside the British aristocracy and government. So improper! Today, the idea doesn’t sound so far-fetched. But in 1943, it was blasphemy.
Closer to our time, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recently produced the popular television program Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a younger, more obnoxious Holmes quite at home in the techie 21st century. His passion is catching criminals. Yet, spies somehow keep turning up, including his own brother Mycroft.
James Bond may get the girls, but let’s face it: Bond is little more than a tastefully refined thug. Jack Ryan began as an intelligence analyst, but now the character is more action than analyst. The quintessential analyst is — Sherlock Holmes. His social skills may waver, but never does his devotion to logic, critical thinking, and deductive reasoning. Whereas we imagine that Holmes has some natural ability unique to himself, he insists that deduction can be self-taught.
The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a physician by education, said he modeled the character on his mentor in medical practice, Dr. Joseph Bell. Doyle explained, “I used and amplified his [Bell’s] methods when, in later life, I tried to build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal.”
Doyle’s explanation sounds plausible, but is it really true? In a letter to Doyle himself from the mentor himself, Dr. Bell, the elder doctor pointed to someone else as the model for Holmes:
“You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.”
Whatever the answer, it appears that Holmes was not entirely fictional.
If you want to become an intelligence analyst, or at least a smart person, please make your fictional model Sherlock Holmes, not James Bond. If you want only girls, being Bond may be enough. (Albeit, there are no guarantees, and you’ll still have to work at it.)
— John G. Heidenrich