Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Crucifer of Blood: A Review



The television film adaptation of The Crucifer of Blood is a curious addition to Sherlock Holmes-based productions.  It stars American acting legend Charlton Heston in the role of the very British Sherlock Holmes, one where he recreates his Los Angeles theatrical performance.  On the whole I think Crucifer of Blood is entertaining if one thinks of it as a theatrical adaptation, where the stage origins are clearly visible. 

A loose adaptation of The Sign of Four, we start with an extended flashback to India, where Private Jonathan Small (Clive Wood) falls into possession of a maharajah's treasure during the Indian Mutiny at the Red Fort of Agra.  Two British officers, Colonel Alistair Cross (Edward Fox) and Captain Neville St. Claire (John Castle) find Small with this treasure, where the two natives aiding in guarding that particular gate are killed, one by St. Claire, one by his own hand.  The suicide believes he is now cursed, and that this curse will continue.  As insurance, Small has Cross and St. Claire sign a blood oath to share the treasure.

Thirty years have passed, and St. Claire's daughter Irene (Susannah Harker) has come to London to ask for help from Sherlock Holmes (Heston) and Dr. Watson (Richard Johnson) to help her father.  The Captain has become an opium addict, and appears haunted by both a strange curse and the death of her mother, which she believes her father caused.  Holmes and Watson go to Colonel Cross' massive estate, where we discover St. Claire is hiding, terrified of the treasure Cross has been hoarding (and which St. Claire has sold his rights to in exchange for a smaller pension).  However, in the dark and stormy night Cross is murdered almost right under Holmes and Watson's nose. 

With one of the military men dead and the other terrified, it is a search to find St. Claire.  He is found in an opium den, where the Chinese owner Fu Tching is none other than Sherlock Holmes (passing himself off for the real Fu Tching, who owes him a favor).  However, Small manages to strike again, as St. Claire is poisoned like Cross was.  The search is now on for Birdy Johnson (James Coyle), Cross' manservant who has run off.  Birdy does go to 221 B Baker Street while Holmes, Watson (who has fallen in love with Irene) and Inspector Lestrade (Simon Callow) have gone off chasing after Small.  Birdy comes to find Irene, and we get one or two more twists which Holmes has managed to put together.

As I finished Crucifer of Blood, I admit I was entertained by it, although I can see why many Holmesians (as Sherlockians now is almost exclusively reserved for fans/lunatics of the BBC's Sherlock television series) find great flaws within it.  The biggest issue involves Charlton Heston himself.  It isn't that Heston is a bad actor.  It's in the fact that he never bothers to attempt a British accent.  Heston sounds thoroughly American, which puts him at odds with all the other actors (who are British).  Furthermore, near the end we see Heston slip into the more theatrical mannerism that Heston at the latter stage of his career adopted.  When he begs Watson to stay rather than leave his services, it was delivered as dialogue, not as a plea to his friend. 

Finally, there's the age issue.  Heston appears a bit too old for the character.  This isn't a deal-breaker per se but it does make the forced romance between Johnson's Watson and Harker's Irene look bizarre at the very least.  Johnson looks like he's romancing his daughter to granddaughter (or at least her friend).  To their credit everyone does what they can to make it believable, but it does look a little bit curious.

Another aspect that Crucifer of Blood has against it is the deliberate play structure the film has.  Director/writer Fraser Heston (adapting the Paul Giovanni play) takes a few good steps visually (such as the extended flashback and St. Claire's drug-induced hallucinations in sepia) but the film is filmed in such a way that at times it does appear that it is basically a filmed play.  The titles on the screen almost read like a playbill (a scene opens with "An Hour Later" on the screen), and the film doesn't take advantage of opening up the play.  In many ways, Crucifer of Blood has the stage dressings and structure of a television movie with some aspirations, which was exactly what it was.

However, the film had some great qualities.  Of particular note was Harker, who made the transition her character required both believable and highly entertaining.  Castle was similarly excellent as the dying and tormented St. Claire, and his final scene was quite moving and effective.  Callow, while having a smaller part, was deliberately funny (in that inept way all policemen are) and brought that 'comic relief' the character required.

In a surprising turn, Charlton Heston's moment as Fu Tching was quite good (and better than his Sherlock Holmes).  One figures this Chinaman (to use the parlance of the times) WAS Holmes, but Heston was so good under the make-up it did make one wonder for a moment.  As Holmes himself, Heston was a bit theatrical (I figure drawing from the more broad performance the theater requires) but he was still entertaining.  One figures that Crucifer of Blood captures what Heston would have been like on stage, so that's a bit of a plus.  Fox has the 'evil Englishman' part pat, and he came off as a bit comical. 

The Crucifer of Blood should not be seen as high theater (as one might see Charlton Heston's version of another play-turned-TBS film, A Man for All Seasons), but as light entertainment.  Certainly the play is that: the characters' names evoke other Sherlock Holmes stories (Neville St. Claire was The Man With the Twisted Lip, the boat the chase after Small being called the Gloria Scott, and Irene, well, one guess).  I can imagine the play being highly entertaining if one didn't think too greatly on it.  It was meant for a good time, and the film version of it should I think be seen in that vein.  I think Holmesians would get a small kick out of seeing all these little in-jokes thrown at them, and they don't disturb the flow of the story, another plus.

Charlton Heston certainly won't rank among the great Sherlock Holmes interpretations like a Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, Vasily Livanov, or Benedict Cumberbatch (though for full disclosure, I prefer Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary myself).  However, Heston managed to hold his own (American accent notwithstanding) and kept things rolling.   It is a good thing that we got to see his stage version of Sherlock Holmes captured in the TV-film, and while not great it isn't the horror others might have made it out to be.  On the whole, I found Crucifer of Blood entertaining, like a night out at the theater, where I could forget my troubles and dabble in a little Victoriana. 

It's unfortunate that the original John Watson in the Los Angeles production of the Heston vehicle was not in the film.  That actor's name? 

Jeremy Brett.   



  1. I need to check this one out. Sounds like a fun adaptation with the Canonical references and everything.

    About Susannah Harker - she went on to play Adelaide Savage in the Granada adaptation of "The Dying Detective" with the late Jeremy Brett.

    It is quite amusing to know that the term "Sherlockians" has been allocated exclusively for fans of the BBC show. That is quite a shame as Sherlock Holmes is too iconic and classic a literary character to have that name to be hijacked by a particular group of fans.

    I am curious about your take on Vasily Livanov's version of Sherlock Holmes. How would you rate his take...


    1. I think it was enjoyable (and the Heston fans I know LOVED it). I think he did a respectable job but the obviously American accent was a bit of an issue. It wouldn't be in a play, but there it is.

      Harker I think stole the show and I'd heard she played w/Brett but didn't know the name of the episode. Thanks for the info.

      I think that because the fans of Sherlock really don't know any other Holmes (apart from Downey, Jr. or Jonny Lee Miller, whom they apparently hate for being "Not Benedict"), they get possessive of the term "Sherlockian". I agree: we've had great interpretations (my heart will always belong to Brett, whom some "Sherlock" fans have never HEARD of...the young) and it shouldn't be limited to one group.

      Speaking of great interpretations, the few clips I've seen of Livanov make me think he certainly is among the greatest versions in any language. Unfortunately, I have been squeezed for time w/school to see anything other than a few glimpses, but maybe I could treat myself to a DVD of the series for Thanksgiving/Christmas...

    2. I agree about the fans of the BBC show. Some of them tend to go overboard in their adoration for the lead actors. I have also read that some of them are under the impression that Moffat and Gatiss created the character of Sherlock Holmes!

      I am glad to hear about your initial impressions about Vasily Livanov. I agree about him being among the greatest versions. He is my personal favorite.


    3. Your profile picture is a clue as to your fondness for Livanov! ;)

      Someone on a Doctor Who Facebook page told us this interesting story. He got a message regarding Moffat, w/the commenter saying that ACD didn't know how to write a good Sherlock Holmes story and should refer to "Sherlock" to get an idea about how the character should be written.

      Sadly, some "Sherlockians" do believe the Canon isn't as good as what Moffat & Gatiss write.

      Again, the young...

    4. I wish the fans of the BBC show would take the time and efforts to learn more about the character and its creator, instead of spending most of their time on worshiping the lead actors.

      Well, each to his/her own, I guess...


    5. I think one of the issues I have w/"Sherlock" involves the fans rather cult-like attitude towards all things "Sherlock". They spin outlandish scenarios to rationalize situations that appear rather far-fetched, and their animosity towards "Elementary" is sometimes downright psychotic. Sherlockians seethe at the idea of JOAN Watson and Sherlock becoming lovers, but appear obsessed w/JOHN Watson and Sherlock becoming lovers. At the very least, I think that's hypocritical.

      Them not knowing much about Canon (let alone caring or caring to know) also bothers me. I don't object to playing w/Canon a bit, but to say that "Sherlock" is somehow BETTER than Canon gets under my skin. Oddly, I haven't heard anyone say "Elementary" is better than Canon.

      Finally, when I saw The Empty Hearse, I was mad, particularly in regards to the actual Empty Hearse Club. I know some Sherlockians might have been amused to get something like a 'shout-out'. However, I felt the show was mocking them as virtually brain-dead morons who go around cosplaying and having nothing to do but sit around and talk about how great Sherlock is and generally act nutty.

      If I were a "Sherlock" fan at that point, I would have thought that either Moffat/Gatiss were ridiculing my more obsessive fellow fans (which at the very least, I would think a bit mean-spirited), or flat-out lumping me in w/the nutters. Either way, I would not have been amused.

    6. Yes, I too thought that Moffat and Gatiss were making fun of the fans of the show in "The Empty Hearse" and not in a light hearted way either. I hope that the fans got the message and will reduce their passion for the show and/or actors.

      The show definitely is far from perfect and sooner the fans realize this, the better for them.


    7. I would love for "Sherlockians" to watch another Sherlock Holmes interpretation. Not necessarily Crucifer of Blood, but my recommendations to them would be...

      The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone)
      The Sign of Four (Brett)
      Your recommendation (Livanov)

      I would love to see/hear their reaction to those three titans of Sherlock interpretations, but fear they would dismiss all of them as "Not Benedict".

      I'd also like to make them watch a whole season of "Elementary", just to irritate them. My recommended episode: "M".

    8. I second that. The fans of the BBC show need a serious dose of reality check.

      I would recommend "The Mortal Fight" (based on The Final Problem) from the Russian adaptation starring Vasily Livanov.

      In addition, I would also recommend "The Blue Carbuncle" featuring the late Peter Cushing. Cushing was a tremendous character actor and made an excellent Holmes.


    9. The Cushing Holmes is one I have not seen. Is it on DVD?

      However, my only hope is that there will be some "Sherlockians" who will at least be curious enough to read Canon (even IF it has to have Benny & Johnny on the cover).

    10. Yes, the Peter Cushing series is available on DVD.

      About the fans of the BBC show reading the Canon, I too wish for the same. But then the world is never ideal....


    11. I'll look into the Cushing version, hopefully once school ends for the semester.

      As for the "Sherlock" fans reading Canon, while there are a few who are actually contemptuous towards ACD (like the ones who wrote that he needed to watch "Sherlock" to see how it should be done), the law of averages suggests that there has to be ONE fan who explored Canon thanks to "Sherlock".

      Hopefully, they won't think Canon is BASED ON "Sherlock"!

    12. I think some fans do read the Canon, after watching the show. But that percentage is quite probably, very low.



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