But Much More
It is interesting how we perceive people. We think that we know what makes them important or famous. If you say to the average person, who is over fifty, the name Basil Rathbone, he or she would first mention Sherlock Holmes.
If you ask what else does that person know about Rathbone, the person would say that he was a famous British actor of the first half of the 20th century. Beyond that most respondents would draw a blank. I did. I did until doing some research on him. Prior to that, I admired him for his playing Sherlock Holmes in the old black and white films of the 30s and 40s. True, nevertheless, there is far more to Rathbone than Sherlock Holmes, the Consulting Detective.
Rathbone was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1892 and died in New York City in 1967 at the age of 75. His family moved to Great Britain when he was around three, because the Boers, who were Dutch colonists, thought that his father, who was British, was spying on the Boers. Rathbone went to high school in Derbyshire and graduated in 1910. A year later, he was on stage at the Theatre Royal in The Taming of the Shrew. In 1912, he spent time playing many Shakespearean characters. By 1914, he made it to London and acted in several plays.
However, WWI caused Rathbone to be drafted in 1915 and became a private of the London Scottish Regiment. A year later, he became a lieutenant and worked as an intelligence officer.
Rathbone wrote in his memoir that his brother, John, visited him on leave during WWI. Both their regiments were stationed close to each other in France, and John came and visited his brother. The two boys enjoyed their time together. Since there was no extra room in their barracks, John and Basil shared the same bed.
A couple months later, he had another dreadful forewarning.
Several weeks after John’s death, Rathbone went to his commanding officer with an idea. Since nighttime reconnaissance wasn’t working, Rathbone had a better notion. He wanted to do a daytime reconnaissance mission, but this time as a tree. He and three of his friends took burnt cork and applied it to their faces along with small branches to their bodies. At 5:00 am, the four soldiers crawled very slowly into no man’s land. They managed to get to the German lines when a German finally noticed them.
Rathbone’s debut as an actor on a battlefield in France won him the Military Cross. As I read about his heroics, all that I could think of was from Macbeth, when Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane. That is what Rathbone did.
This tree was at Birnam Wood when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth.
I’ll never forget Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, but he was even a better actor when Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane.
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