In the Shadow of Rathbone: Charlton Heston in The Crucifer of Blood

holmes-basil-rathboneCasting Charlton Heston as Sherlock Holmes might seem like a great way to make a terrible film. As it turns out, it’s fun to watch this Hollywood legend, not really known for his versatile acting, take on the role.

What left me with a sour taste after watching The Crucifer of Blood (1991) was the dissonance between the story and its canonical source — and the dissonance between the ages of story’s romantic leads.

Other than that, this film provides viewers with a chance to see a good Holmes stage play — at home.

heston-as-holmesShining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Of course, a reviewer must first address the obvious question: Heston as Holmes? Yes, it’s odd — but it’s not a hansom cab wreck. I never forgot I was watching Charlton Heston, and I did feel an irrepressible urge to shout lines such as “Get your sticking paws off my dashed, dirty cape!” or “The murderer is PEOPLE! PEEEEOPLLLLE!” Nonetheless, Heston does a fairly descent job at trying to play Holmes. There’s little he can do about his familiar, resonant voice, and he’s clearly no master of accents. But he does manage to occasionally utter an English vowel sound instead of an American one and to soften an “r” here and there.

In fact, at one point, Heston’s performance is impressively not Hestonian (and I very much hope his voice wasn’t dubbed for this). When watching Holmes movies, many fans keep an eye out for the scene that comes about halfway through and that introduces a character with a curiously large head, pronounced facial hair, or a glaring hunch-and-hobble. That character often turns out to be Holmes in disguise. As such, I’m really not spoiling things too much to reveal that that happens here. Even if the ruse is caught right away, though, one can admire how Heston might have made it work onstage — with the advantage of considerable distance between actors and audience.

And, indeed, The Crucifer of Blood was a stage play, written by Paul Giovanni, before it was this film. The stagey feel remains in the long scenes played in confined sets, recorded with routine camerawork. And watching Heston is a bit like watching, say, your dentist in a community theater play: regardless of how good or bad the acting, it’s tough to forget that the actor is Charlton Heston. Or your dentist.

richard-johnson-as-watsonWatching Watson

Richard Johnson does a fine job of playing Dr. Watson, though the character has a few wisps of the Nigel Bruce bumbler. The old soldier forgets he’s carrying around a pistol in his hand, for instance, and becomes boyishly giddy when Holmes compliments his actions. That’s kind of disappointing, but this Watson grows downright disturbing in another respect. Johnson and Heston were both well into their 60s when this movie was made, and no amount of hair dye can change that. When Watson gets mushy with their client — played by Susannah Harker in her mid-20s — well, yes, their kissing scene is unsettling. It also implies volumes about Watson’s character (or lack thereof).

That’s a casting issue. In terms of the script, early on, Holmes admits he didn’t know Watson had an alcoholic brother. By the conclusion, though, we’re supposed to believe that the great detective would be lost without his dear companion. So how well do these men really know each other? It might have been an interesting dynamic to explore, but director/screenwriter Fraser C. Heston shoves it aside.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

Wait a second. Fraser C. Heston? Yes, the director and screenwriter of The Crucifer of Blood is Charlton Heston’s son. He wrote the film script, and Giovanni wrote the play on which it’s based . . . but who wrote the novel that started it all?

According to the opening and closing credits — no one! Arthur Conan Doyle is never mentioned, not even as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. This is particularly disrespectful considering the story itself is a blatant reworking of Doyle’s The Sign of Four, right down to the naming of Jonathan Small and Tonga. Granted, other key names were changed. Major John Shoto becomes Alistair Ross, Captain Arthur Morstan becomes Neville St. Claire, and importantly, Mary Morstan becomes Irene St. Claire. Yes. Irene. Get it? Given the wink at that other famous Irene in Holmes’ life, maybe this one isn’t quite the damsel in distress she appears to be, hmm? Certainly, she’s not the woman in the novel who becomes Watson’s wife — if only due to the age difference.

gloria-scott.jpg
Renaming characters — and a boat — with names from other Holmes stories becomes a source of play — and some confusion — in The Crucifer of Blood.

For viewers who know Doyle’s works, then, the mystery becomes less about who’s willing to commit murder to gain the jewels and more about why names have been borrowed from other canonical tales. Is this is a way to let fans of the original novel know that the solution has been changed, too?

Even if it is, I suspect that viewers who don’t know The Sign of Four can better enjoy the film. After all, the mystery all by itself is a pretty good one (though not quite as grand and horrific as what’s promised in Watson’s introduction). Still, I think the film falls short for any viewer in trying to interweave this commendable mystery with a unbelievable threat to the partnership of Holmes and Watson. Again, the casting undercuts the love triangle here. We really don’t see Irene Ad — er, uhm — St. Claire as the woman worthy of breaking up Watson’s more gentlemanly marriage.

As I suggest above, perhaps the best way to watch The Crucifer of Blood is as a production of the play, specifically, a community theater production of it. Sometimes, the familiarity of the actor supersedes the performance. Sometimes, the casting depends more on who the director can get than on who’s right for the part. Watching with these factors in mind might help one enjoy the show.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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