Friday, 17 October 2008

Martial heroics

There's always scope for revising classics for the current zeitgeist. The Guardian's Brad Pitt may go back to the future with sci-fi Odyssey (Ben Child, October 17 2008) is just one of the papers recycling a Variety report that Mad Max director George Miller is working with Warner Brothers on an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey with "a futuristic setting in outer space". I don't know if the late RA Lafferty is anywhere in the picture, as this is exactly the premise of his 1968 Space Chantey, another of my favourite SF novels. It's worth finding. Lafferty, in his characteristic tipsy yarn-telling style tells the Odyssey through the story of Captain Roadstrum (more Brian Blessed than Brad Pitt) leading the crew of his "hornet ships" home after a ten-year war.

The war was finished. It had lasted ten equivalent years and taken ten million lives. Thus it was neither of long duration nor of serious attrition. It hadn't any great significance; it was not intended to have. It did not prove a point, since all points had long ago been proven. What it did, perhaps, was to emphasize an aspect, sharpen a concept, underline a trend.

On the whole it was a successful operation. Economically and ecologically it was of healthy effect, and who should grumble?

And after wars, men go home. No, no, men start for home. It's not the same.

They encounter perils such as the drowsy pleasure planet of Lotophage, the rustic cannibals of Polyphemia and the monstrous Siren-Zo, the story mixing in out-of-mythos elements from Irish folktale, other mythologies (such as Norse) and shaggy dog stories (as in the tale when Roadstrum wins 1000 worlds by hi-tech cheating on a gambling world, then loses it all playing Double or Quits with a toilet attendant).

The attendant still owns those worlds today. He is High Emperor and he administers his worlds competently. He is a man of talent.

No connection, except for heroics and eclectic sourcing: the film Equilibrium (see also the fan site) has a similar cheerful mix of influences: from 1984, a totalitarian society with a Big Brother figure; from Brave New World, a population kept peaceful by a calming drug; from Fahrenheit 451, a book-burning culture; and (it appears) from The Matrix, overall style, especially that of the slick combat sequences. A central conceit of Equilibrium is the premise of "gun kata", a fictional martial art enabling its users to defeat armed opponents at close quarters by a rote-learned statistical approach of shooting where they're likely to be, and being where they're not likely to shoot. It's pretty unfeasible but, as writer/director Kurt Wimmer says, it was devised to give an interesting and unique visual effect to the action sequences (see the final fight sequence - in which the hero confronts the Yeats-quoting leader of the totalitarian society) for an example of the choreography). A similar degree of thought has recently gone into another martial art - Bartitsu - that was long assumed to be fictional because of a misnomer.

Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts have long speculated about the "baritsu" which, in The Adventure of the Empty House.Holmes says he used to overcome Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls

I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.

A few years back an apparently unconnected curiosity appeared on the Web, reprints from Pearson's Magazine around 1900: The New Art of Self-defence: How a Man May Defend Himself against Every Form of Attack (Part 1 / Part 2) and Self-defence with a Walking Stick. All were by an Edward William Barton-Wright, and described his self-invented mixed martial art, which combined Jujutsu and Judo with various Western techniques such as boxing and stick fighting. This martial art - named "Bartitsu" - was finally solidly connected with the Holmesian "Baritsu" in a 1997 paper ("Further Lessons in Baritsu", Richard Bowen, The Ritual: Review of the Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society, 1997) and since then, Bartitsu has been solidly researched and developed by groups such as the Bartitsu Society.

In its own time, Bartitsu itself was short-lived. I feel there always was a strong degree of scamminess to Barton-Wright's promotions. In 1900, for instance, there was a certain amount of press scepticism about his claims, especially when he cancelled a public demonstration of Jujitsu's superiority over all comers on the lame grounds that the Japanese exponents he had imported weren't allowed to demonstrate for a paying audience (Sporting Notes and News, The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, October 23, 1900). Barton-Wright's Bartitsu Club foundered in 1903, and he went on to a career in quack therapies. In 1914-15, his "Bartitsu Institute" offered

"Forty Radium Emanation Machines ... Bergonié and Nagelschmidt Apparatus, D'Arsonval High-Frequency Machines, Light Baths, Diathermy or Thermo-Penetration Machines, 20-Plate Static Machine (the largest machine ever built), Eighteen-Inch Coil and Röntgen Ray Apparatus, Ultra-Violet Ray Lamps, Nauheim Baths, Cataphoresis (Système Barton-Wright), Electric Vibrating Machines (Système Barton-Wright)".

for treatment of obesity and various ailments, and he ran into bankruptcy at least twice.

According to Premiere magazine - Robert Downey Jr.'s Bad-Ass Sherlock Holmes - the detective is being revamped for Sherlock Holmes, a forthcoming Guy Ritchie movie. This will feature "baritsu". See Robert Downey Jr.'s comment

in the real origin stories of Sherlock Holmes, he's kind of a bad-ass and a bare-knuckle boxer and studies the rare art of baritsu. If you look baritsu up, they can't even really tell you what it is, so it gives us a lot of leeway.

This doesn't sound like an understanding of authentic Bartitsu, but the background appears to be more promising than the quote suggests. Check out the comments to this post: Tony Wolf of the Bartitsu Society tells me that

A recent quote from director Guy Ritchie makes specific
reference to Bartitsu, so although we don't expect a verbatim
reproduction of the historical style on screen, it's nice to know that
they're doing their homework.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ray,

    thanks for this excellent summary of Bartitsu lore.

    Regarding the cancelled 1900 demo., going by all accounts (both Barton-Wright's and those of journalists at the time,) the two Japanese fighters genuinely did refuse to go on stage because they felt that it was unseemly to display jiujitsu in music halls. They returned to Japan shortly thereafter, but a third young jiujitsuka, Yukio Tani, had no qualms about such employment and enjoyed great success representing the Bartitsu Club in matches against much larger British wrestlers.

    The Bartitsu Society has made contact with the producers of the upcoming Holmes movie and donated copies of our books, the Bartitsu Compendium volumes I and II, as potential inspiration for the fight scenes. A recent quote from director Guy Ritchie makes specific reference to Bartitsu, so although we don't expect a verbatim reproduction of the historical style on screen, it's nice to know that they're doing their homework.