Sherlock Holmes and the Nazis: Fifth Columnists and the People’s War in Anglo-American Cinema, 1942-1943

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During the Second World War Universal Pictures produced three key Sherlock Holmes films. In each of these pictures, released between 1942 and 1943, Holmes was appropriated into the war effort. The Great Detective was transposed into wartime London where he, in effect, became the ultimate counter-intelligence agent, who foiled the plots of Nazi infiltrators and sympathisers. The films retooled Holmes from his detective origins and into the spy genre, as was required for maximum propaganda value. Three key propaganda themes emerged from the films. First, that Britain was engaged in a ‘People’s War’, in which Holmes was able to emerge victorious thanks to the contributions and assistance of ordinary members of the British public. Second, that the public needed to be vigilant against the threat posed by Nazi agents and fifth columnists. Third, that the USA and Britain were bound together by mutual respect and cultural ties, and that collaboration between the two powers would achieve victory. Each of these themes was key to the British propaganda effort and had emerged as a staple trope in British media. The Holmes films had, however, been produced by an American studio in Hollywood. Nevertheless, the American filmmakers were typically able to produce successful ‘British’ propaganda pieces, drawing upon British propaganda tropes, which succeeded on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. That success did not necessarily lie in the films’ artistic merits – in fact, they were regularly savaged by critics on that front – but because their propaganda messages were sufficiently subtle that they were rarely noted upon at all.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)308-327
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of British Cinema and Television
Issue number3
Early online date1 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018


  • Sherlock Holmes
  • People’s War
  • propaganda
  • Second World War
  • spy fiction
  • special relationship
  • Cinema
  • Fifth Column
  • Universal Pictures


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