Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
John Watson: Nigel Bruce
Year: 1943
Case: The Dancing Men


Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is another in the long line of WWII Sherlock Holmes films.  Holmes, acting on behalf of the British government, is entrusted with the safety and security of a Swiss Physicist, Dr. Tobel, whose bomb-sight is wanted by both the allies and the Nazis.  When Tobel disappears, it is up to Holmes to rescue him from the hands of Professor Moriarty, but not before Holmes locates the four components of Tobel’s bomb-sight, the locations of which have been carefully encoded using a somewhat familiar code.  Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is loosely based on The Adventure of the Dancing Men.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

While still managing to portray Holmes in a realistic light, there was something decidedly off in this particular film.  Rathbone seemed less polish then he has in the past, or would in the future.  This is particularly notable in Holmes’ treatment of Watson.  Indeed, Holmes seems perpetually annoyed with Watson (which was understandable, given Bruce’s lacklustre performance).

Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson

Although Watson does prove useful at several points in this film, for the most part The Secret Weapon displays Watson at his dumbest.  Sadly, Bruce seems to excel at this, taking a beloved character and turning him into nothing more than comedic relief.  Of all Bruce’s performances, I think this belongs on the bottom of the pile.

Delightful Elements

While the film was distinctly lacking in delightful elements, a few did manage to squeak through.  The London sets were quite interesting; the piles of brick and half destroyed buildings quite realistic given the bombed-out London they were trying to achieve.

There were several smaller elements which amused me.  I was quite pleased, for example, that they included a female bomber pilot in the introduction scene.  The Poe reference amused me greatly, too, for it connected well with Canon and Holmes’ origins.

Holmes in disguise is always delightful, and this film treats us to several of Holmes’ disguises.  Indeed, Rathbone’s performance when in disguise transcended his performance as Holmes.

As mentioned above, there were several endearing Watson scenes.  Twice Watson rescues Holmes from certain destruction, and twice it is Holmes’ bungling (rather than Watson’s) which threatens Holmes’ life.  At times, too, Watson seemed quite intelligent, and I was delighted to see that he had picked up Holmes’ trick for decoding an encrypted message.

Sadly, that was about all the film had to offer.


I must confess that I’m not entirely certain where to begin; that’s how many quibbles this film earned.

Perhaps we shall begin with Watson, for I have always despised, above and beyond all things, poor treatment of Watson.  Right from the start Watson appears as a bungling idiot.  He narrowly avoids shooting Holmes (and then Mrs. Hudson –and I must confess that the actress chosen to play Mrs. Hudson belongs in my quibbles).  He falls asleep on the job.  He snores.  In general he becomes every inch of the moron Watson in Canon was not, and it was quite distressing.

Then, of course, there is Holmes’ treatment of Watson.  Holmes yells at Watson.  He shakes Watson violently.  He patronizes Watson, and talks down to Watson, and belittles Watson; in general, Holmes treats Watson like a dog.  Indeed, were I in Watson’s position, I would have decked Holmes midway through the first act.

Then, of course, there was the borrowed plot.  The Adventure of the Dancing Men was a clever story, largely because it fit into the period for which it was written.  Anyone with even a basic understanding of WWII history should know that cryptography had become a virtual science.  The Germans would have hacked Tobel’s dancing men inside of ten minutes.  It is ridiculous to assume that such a simplistic code would be used during an era when Alan Turing was busy inventing what would become the prototype for modern day computers.

The film was also quite slow moving; indeed, at times I completely lost interest in what it was I was watching, forgetting in the process the entire purpose of the supposed plot.

Moriarty, of course, was horrifying.  The actor chosen to play the role was entirely too young, not nearly cynical enough, and completely lacking in any sort of evil aura.  That he was included at all (and really, the film had no need of him since they already had the Nazis) was ludicrous.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the entire film reeked of cliché (though, again, this may not have been the case during the period in which it was filmed).  Half of the plot could have easily belonged to an ‘evil mastermind plots world domination’ parody.  There was nothing about this film that was even remotely realistic.

Finally, no Holmes WWII film would be complete without plenty of propaganda.  Holmes’ speech at the end, though actually a thinly veiled reference, was propaganda at its purest.  I quite literally rolled my eyes, and that is never a good way to end a film.

In the end, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (which wasn’t actually a weapon, but rather a weapon guidance system) rates a mere 1 out of 5 pipes.  It should be remarked that the film lost most of its point due to the complete and utter lack of slash.  Indeed, if I did not know any better, I would swear that Rathbone despised Bruce.  Perhaps they were fighting.