Greatest Sherlock Holmes #3: How Holmes prevented World War
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pitted France and Russia as Great Britain’s enemies, and the conflict in “The Naval Treaty” almost brings them to war, which Sherlock Holmes has to prevent. This tale was written by Doyle in 1893 in The Strand magazine in two parts, because it has over 12,000 words, which is quite a verbose adventure. However, everything about it is interesting, essential, and dramatic. It is a forebearer to the political thriller genre, a subject you might not expect to find in a Sherlock Holmes adventure, however this is what makes it unique and compelling.
The plot involves the theft of an important treaty from the Foreign Office, an event which threatens dire consequences. This is because it is highly political, of course. The treaty represents in written form the stance of the English government toward the Triple Alliance, of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. If Italy attacked another country, it might be important to know how England or anyone else might react. This is why the document was of great importance. If the Naval Treaty explained that England was going to remain neutral, then their enemies had every reason to continue to pursue more aggressive operations in the Mediterranean. However, this wouldn’t make the German or Italians very happy, and might start a huge conflict.
These are the kinds of details that made the original Doyle story so dense. It is not tedious however, but somewhat like reading a lighter version of Tom Clancy. Given the length of the material, the characters and the dialogue thankfully have the right amount of balance in the television episode. In “Bending the Willow”, David Stuart Davies explains that Jeremy Brett continued his defense of the Sherlock canon for this outing. It almost completely follows the plot of the story as written by Doyle. This is a good thing, because the original story works very well. This direct page to screen style is probably attributable to Brett.
Jeremy Brett also fought hard for moments that addressed the broader issues in life. He became fascinated with this Doyle story and its little details, the elements that make it great, like the class structure alluded to in the text. Percy Phelps worked in the Foreign Office as a clerk and came from a high-class background, so no doubt was selected for his work to make a copy of The Naval Treaty because of his upbringing and background. He was also the nephew of Lord Holdhurst, the minister of the Foreign Office, the man in charge. Holmes later remarks that he noticed Lord Holdhurst had his boots resoled, which is notable because it shows that the man is not as rich and powerful as he appears. It is a great moment to include in the episode.
The Rose speech is another great moment to include in the episode from the text. Jeremy Brett plays it so well. This speech occurs when Holmes interviews Percy Phelps after the treaty is stolen from the office. Holmes seems to wax poetic as he wanders the room and one might assume he has become bored, but the speech portrays Holmes as more of a dreamer or philosopher:
‘What a lovely thing a rose is! . . . There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. . . It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’
This speech begs the question: Why is there beauty in the world? All other things supplement life, like food, but beauty does not. Holmes saw this evidenced in flowers, all of which seem more beautiful than necessary to life. If nothing else, one can see that Holmes is an emotional man, believing hope exists for humanity or the world. Perhaps this is why he tries so hard to save the world from war in “The Naval Treaty”. This is the theme of The Naval Treaty.
This episode of the Grenada series also has wonderful scenery and backgrounds. It has many garden shots, such as from Pott Hall in Manchester, a very picturesque place. The Hall stands in as Percy’s house, and it has a little barn where Brett as Holmes watches Joseph try to snatch the Naval Treaty from its hiding place. Holmes rushes into the house and catches him red-handed.
Jeremy Brett gave an interview in 1988 in which he said:
“To bring it off the printed page for myself, I invented little stories about him. About the loneliness of his university days, of his brilliance at sports, and his total removal from any kind of social activity… Which are little images I have had for the last six years of what it might have been like. To throw any more light one can possibly think of on to what might have made him and Mycroft so… typically Victorian I hasten to add… Probably he didn’t actually see his father till he was twelve, and his mother was just a lady moving through a passageway, because they were taken care of by a starch-crisp nurse… So, everything to bring a bit more illumination.”
This introspective and isolated Sherlock Holmes is on display in this episode, from his dialogue to his solitary enjoyment of nature. Brett plays it wonderfully and you can see Holmes enjoying nature all by himself. In another scene, Alison Skilbeck as Annie Harrison pulls Holmes from his jaunt into the philosophical and it is amusing just how much Holmes is lost in thought.
As an aside, it is curious how much time and effort Jeremy Brett put into his work as Sherlock Holmes compared to others. He made 14 episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes between 1984-1985 and all of them are pretty decent. Benedict Cumberbatch made 4 episodes in 2010, but then took years between appearances as Sherlock Holmes, which is a shame. I actually like some of his work as the modern Holmes, but other episodes are terrible or a mixed-bag.
Sherlock Holmes catches Joseph, retrieves the treaty, and prevents the dire circumstances I mentioned earlier. He saves the political landscape of all of Europe in fact, but Holmes seems unmoved by this success. We might assume it is just another puzzle to him, but given his philosophical thoughts earlier in the episode, I think there is more to Sherlock Holmes than logic and eccentricities. That’s why the modern version is way off track. In this episode, Brett makes Holmes shine as a deep individual, despite him appearing introverted throughout.