The Crucifer of Blood started its life as a stage play by Paul Giovanni – opening on Broadway in 1978 and running for 236 performances. The original cast included Paxton Whitehead as Sherlock Holmes, Timothy Landfield as Dr. John Watson, and Glenn Close as Irene St. Claire. The play would also appear in London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in in 1979, where it ran for 397 performances, with Keith Michell as Sherlock Holmes and Denis Lill as Dr. John Watson. Perhaps most famously, however, was the Los Angeles production, which premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1980. The cast included Charlton Heston as Sherlock Holmes, and Jeremy Brett as Dr. John Watson. Though Brett would famously go on to play Sherlock Holmes for the Granada Television series (and become one of only a handful of actors who could boast having played both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson), he said of playing Dr. Watson:
“In some ways Watson is stronger than Holmes. That comes through his kindness, I suppose. He sees Holmes' weaknesses and tries to protect him from them. Look how Watson rants at him about cocaine. Watson is always on the lookout in order to save his friend from pain, indignity or destruction… Watson is much more my kind of person. Watson is a warm, loving, sunny person who's very enthusiastic – and hurt and slightly upset when his friend is rude to people or him. This is much more like me.”
In 1991, The Crucifer of Blood was brought to the small screen with Charlton Heston again in the leading role as Sherlock Holmes, but this time featuring Richard Johnson as Dr. John Watson. Notably, the film also features Heston’s son, Fraser, in his first directing role. The film was first broadcast on the cable network TNT on November 4, 1991. With a plotline based largely upon The Sign of Four, the film opens with an extended sequence taking place during the Siege of Agra in 1857. The production’s stage origins are almost immediately apparent in the close, confined sets and painted backdrops. The sequence echoes the story that Jonathan Small tells in chapter twelve of SIGN (“The Strange Story of Jonathan Small”), even if it is not an exact parallel. Most notably, the characters of Major Sholto and Captain Morstan have been replaced instead by Major Alistair Ross and Captain Neville St. Claire (perhaps, as was mentioned earlier, in homage to some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s other Sherlock Holmes stories). The scene is often laborious and frontloads the film, taking the viewer away from the very brief glimpse of Baker Street that they have had thus far – in which Dr. Watson narrates briefly in a black and white cutaway of Heston’s Sherlock Holmes playing the violin.
Thirty years later, Captain St. Clair’s daughter Irene (pronounced “Eye – reen – ee,” in this instance for those who are interested) arrives at 221B Baker Street, seeking the help of Holmes and Watson. Miss St. Clair is played by Susannah Harker, who would later appear in Granada Television’s 1994 adaptation of “The Dying Detective,” as Adelaide Savage, the wife of the unfortunate Victor Savage. Irene arrives just after Holmes has famously deduced the identity and characteristics of Dr. Watson’s unfortunate older brother by using the late man’s pocket watch, another scene famously lifted from SIGN, with Watson’s angry indignation intact. She has also missed Watson offering Holmes the newly arrived post, and Holmes telling him that, “[Watson] know[s] where it goes” – as if waiting for an audience response of “on the mantle, under the jackknife.” It is only one of many canonical allusions that come across as forced or stilted throughout the production. (The movie ends with a similarly wooden reference to the “Giant Rat of Sumatra” – and a sea captain collapsing theatrically on the hearthrug.)
Charlton Heston is not entirely unsuccessful in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Undeniably tall, with an elegant bearing, he interacts well with Johnson’s Watson. He is aggressive and uncompromising when appropriate and apparently very motivated. He enjoys the hunt and relishes the thrill of the chase, with all its nuances and clever contrivances. But he isn’t well-spoken, often seeming to mumble, sounding as if he is perpetually speaking around the stem of a pipe, even when he’s not. As Sherlock Holmes Heston is often forgettable, a non-entity, allowing many scenes to be commandeered by co-stars, fading into the background, pipe between his lips and deerstalker on his head. According to David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, “The star’s best moment, oddly enough, comes not when he’s playing Holmes as Holmes, but when he plays Holmes in the guise of an ancient Chinese proprietor of a Soho opium den. Stereotypical though it is, it’s one of the best Holmes-in-disguise sequences ever committed to film” (156).
At the time of filming, Richard Johnson was 64-years-old (comparatively, Jeremy Brett, when he portrayed Dr. Watson in the 1980 stage play, was only 47-years-old). The somewhat advancing age of Johnson’s Watson rather changes some of the dynamics in the film. Nowhere else is this more obvious than when a drugged Irene both confuses Dr. Watson for her aging father, and then confesses to her “father” that she is falling in love with the Doctor. And then they kiss, passionately. It turns the stomach a little. Like the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of Murder by Decree – where the distinct age difference between Christopher Plummer’s Holmes and James Mason’s Watson generated a more paternal relationship between the two men than a fraternal one – the advancing ages of Heston’s Sherlock Holmes and Johnson’s Dr. Watson change many of the interactions in this film version of The Crucifer of Blood, not always for the better (or even indifferently). The romantic subplot of the story, so obviously meant to correspond with the courtship of Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan from SIGN, actually comes across as a bit unsettling, even creepy.
The Crucifer of Blood ends on a strange note – perhaps in keeping the tone of the film – with Irene transforming from mistreated ingénue to aggressive siren (complete with low-cut, red dress), Watson fainting dead away (presumably from the absurdity of it all), and Sherlock Holmes disgracefully begging for Watson to remain at Baker Street (once the Doctor regains consciousness and his indignation). A film adaptation allows a story to become available to a wider audience when it was once only accessible to a small one. However, there is something lost in adapting this particular play for the small screen. A presentation that was perhaps elegant and theatrical on stage becomes claustrophobic and outlandish on television. Without access to the original stage production, a Sherlock Holmes completionist could do worse than to add this particular film to their collection, with the awareness that the spirit of the production was willing, even if the flesh of it was weak.
• Stuart Davies, David. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (January 2006).
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