Basil Rathbone, the Actor
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.

Sherlock Holmes with his Calabash Pipe, deerstalker cap, and Inverness cape

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.

Basil Rathbone

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.

John and I spent a glorious day together. He had an infectious sense of humor and a personality that made friends for him wherever he went. In our mess on that night he made himself as well-liked as in his own regiment. We retired late, full of good food and Scotch whiskey. We shared my bed and were soon sound asleep. It was still dark when I awakened from a nightmare. I had just seen John killed. I lit the candle beside my bed and held it to my brother’s face—for some moments I could not persuade myself that he was not indeed dead. At last I heard his regular gentle breathing. I kissed him and blew out the candle and lay back on my pillow again. But further sleep was impossible. A tremulous premonition haunted me—a premonition which even the dawn failed to dispel.

A couple months later, he had another dreadful forewarning.

At one o’clock on June 4, 1918, I was sitting in my dugout in the front line. Suddenly I thought of John, and for some inexplicable reason I wanted to cry, and did. In due course I received the news of his death in action at exactly one o’clock on June the fourth.

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.

Suddenly there were footsteps and a German soldier came into view behind the next traverse. He stopped suddenly, struck dumb, no doubt, by our strange appearance. Capturing him was out of the question; we were too far away from home. But before he could pull himself together and spread the alarm, I shot him twice with my revolver… Tanner tore the identification tags off his uniform and I rifled his pockets, stuffing a diary and some papers into my camouflage suit… We scaled the parapet, forced our way through the barbed wire… and had hardly reached it when two machine guns opened a cross fire on us.

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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