I think BR’s life can be divided roughly into (slightly uneven) quarters.
“Before the war” (1892-1914), “after the war” (1919-23), “The Ouida years”),1923-46, and the “post-Hollywood years” (1946-67).
Each one of these segments or chapters is divided by a crucial event that shaped him, made him the man he was, for good or bad, gave him his successes and failures, his joys and his pain.
The first of these crucial events, I think, was (unsurprisingly) the Great War. The second was meeting Ouida. The third was….well the thing that culminated in him quitting Hollywood so abruptly in 1946.
We’ve talked about Ouida already, and we’ll certainly do so again. I’ll come to the whole “Leaving Los Angeles” thing later on. It’s a big subject, and a sensitive one.
Today I’m going to talk about World War One, the “war to end all wars.”
Of course war is always crucial in people’s lives, it always defines moments and experiences, and it always leaves scars. The Great War in particular cut a huge and bloody gash across an entire generation. Every man and woman who was in that war or who had people in the war was shaped by the experience, it goes without saying. But some got away more lightly than others. There were “good wars” and “bad wars”.
I think BR’s was, in many ways, one of the “bad” wars. And the immediate aftermath made it worse rather than better.
In 1914, when Europe erupted into conflagration, Basil Rathbone was a 22-year old actor with Frank Benson’s Shakespeare company (which would one day form the basis of the RSC). he seems to have been a warmly enthusiastic, passionate sort of young man. Theatre was his life, and he was ambitious for success. Everything else (apart from women) was a distraction.
The thought of war appalled him, and he had no qualms about admitting as much. Unlike his little brother, who joined up in 1915, aged 18, Basil was in no hurry to become a soldier and risk his life in what many saw as a pointless war. He put off taking the step for as long as he felt able. But at last, in 1916, he joined the London Scottish as a private. Because of his upper class background he was immediately chosen for officer-training and eventually became a 2nd Lieutenant. In early 1917 he was attached to the 2/10 Liverpool Scottish, also known as the King’s Liverpool Regiment, and in the spring of that year his battalion was sent to France to go into the line.
We don’t have details of the fighting he saw, and won’t until some researcher tracks down the Battalion war diary or other records, but like every other man out there he would be living in mud and squalor and the daily risk of sudden death from snipers or artillery fire. In his own words they lived with death “on a daily basis.”
Life in the trenches was more than enough for any human being to have to cope with at one time. But then, in 1917, while he was on active service, his mother died suddenly, aged no more than fifty-something, and this removed an important centre of stability from the family. Not only was he deprived of his mother, but her loss probably brought quite a responsibility on BR, as the oldest sibling, to be strong for the family, particularly as neither his sister nor his father seem to have coped well with the bereavement.
And then fate took another swipe. Less than a year later, in June 1918, his little brother, John, was killed by a trench mortar. The need to be the strong one and support his devastated family probably only increased. His sister, as we know, became lost in grief, possibly suffering some sort of mental breakdown, and his father began depending heavily on his one surviving son.
The cumulative impact all this – the stress of war and the loss of his family – had on BR can best be seen in the two WW1 letters discovered by Frank Belcher, and which appear to have been written by BR to his family in 1917 and 1918 respectively.
In the first, written not long after his battalion shipped out to France, he is bright, full of fun, seeing humor in the hardships, describing the trench his company is in as “the Park Lane of accommodation,” and joking “even the rats wear little dress suits and have impeccable manners.” His spirits are still resilient enough and youthful enough to joke even about a potential gas attack
“…Oh but we had a real gas scare the other day. Our part in it was small but telling. It was very near to being an incident. I was out on duty and there were a few shells coming over, nothing much and mostly falling pretty deep, when one of the men said he heard the dread call ‘gas’ coming from north of us – We were all straining to catch anything unusual on the wind, but we couldn’t see or smell anything and we thought it was just imagination, until the CSM and I went along to the next traverse and we caught the smell of something sharp and acrid in the air, and we stopped dead and looked at one another, and I said ‘is it chlorine?’ and he said ‘I’m not taking the risk’ and he spun around and called out “gas” to the men and everyone began putting on respirators, and it was only then I realised my respirator was in the abri and not at my side, which was not a happy realisation. I’m afraid I took off and ran for it all the way back. Heroically of course…”
The second letter is a massive contrast. It’s only about a year later, but everything is different. He’s seen a year of life in the trenches, encountered death on a “daily basis.” His mother is dead, and his brother has been killed only weeks before. The joking is over.
“You ask how I have been since we heard [of John’s death], well, if I am honest with you, and I may as well be, I have been seething. I was so certain it would be me first of either of us. I’m even sure it was supposed to be me and he somehow contrived in his wretched Johnny-fashion to get in my way… He had no business to let it happen and it maddens me that I shall never be able to tell him so, or change it or bring him back. I can’t think of him without being consumed with anger at him for being dead and beyond anything I can do to him.
I’m afraid it’s not what you hoped for from me and perhaps that’s why I haven’t written. I suspect you want me to say some sweet things about him. I wish I could for your sake, but I don’t have them to say. Out here we step over death every day. We stand next to it while we drink our tea. It’s commonplace and ordinary. People who had lives and tried to hold on to them and didn’t, and now slump and stare and melt slowly to nothing. You meet their eyes, or what used to be their eyes and you feel ashamed. And now Johnny is one of them. That’s an end of it. Grieving is only ridiculous in this place…”
His emotions seem flattened, almost detached and disengaged. I don’t know when the photo on the right was taken, but the eyes seem to have the same distance and bleakness in them that we read in this letter. The only feeling he talks about is anger. He hints, maybe unconsciously, at what amounts to a death-wish (“I’m even sure it was supposed to be me…”). The fact that at the same time he was writing this he had persuaded his commanding officer to let him go on highly risky, if not suicidal, daylight patrols into No Man’s Land, on at least one of which he and his men were almost killed, really underlines that he means what he says. He truly believes, by this stage, that John died in his place, and he is gripped by intense guilt about that. He was the older brother. It was his job to protect the baby of the family, and instead he let him die.
Worse than this, John had been the hero BR didn’t want to be and never thought himself capable of being. He had joined up almost a year earlier than Basil, even though he was five years younger, and had been near-fatally wounded at the Somme while Basil was still a civilian. This itself was an inversion of how things “ought” to be, and Basil must have been well aware of that. His baby brother, the hero, had died, while he, the waster and the coward, remained alive.
I think this is the thought, conscious or not, that is driving BR slightly mad at this point, and the guilt flowing from the fact that he survived while his brother died would be the thing that shaped the rest of his life more than any other single thing.
I think the second letter, and BR’s own self-descriptions in later years, make it clear he was by this time suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Guilt, withdrawal, depression, self-destructive impulses,lassitude, all these symptoms he carried home with him at the war’s end in 1919.
But this emotionally scarred young man was not going to be allowed time to heal, supported by a loving family. On the contrary, his sister, apparently heartbroken by the death of her mother and brother, vanished from the scene, possibly returning to South Africa. We have no firm information about where she went or what she did other than the fact she left her brother all alone to care for their father, who leaned heavily on the one child he could still depend on. In BR’s own laconic words:
I was completely alone for the first time in my life. Of course there were my father and my sister. But my father had aged considerably, I thought, since I had last seen him. He seemed completely lost without my mother and to the day of his death was to cling to me desperately…My sister was lost to us both. Her spirit had been deeply wounded by my mother’s and brother’s death… And so each of us lived alone in our own particular form of loneliness.
His marriage too had broken down, possibly as a direct result of his trauma, and the changed man he had become. According to some sources he was taking refuge in drink and pills, and was “serially unfaithful’ to his wife. Whatever the cause, only months after coming home from the army in 1919, he left Marion and their young son, and began living on his own on a small bare room in Kensington.
At this point he truly was “alone.” Which was, apparently, what he wanted. He may or may not have indulged in a lot of sex, but the last thing he wanted was emotional closeness. According to his own testimony, he had no interest in life, no ambitions:
I was a man living from day to day and perfectly content in doing it. I had no plans, few ambitions…I shrank from decisions… I hated any sort of battle or argument. I just wanted to be let alone – to vegetate.”
In a private letter written years later he is even more frank:
“…[after the war] I had this mad feeling I’d become some sort of Wandering Jew. And everything for so long afterwards was about dragging this living corpse of myself around, giving it things to do, because here it was, alive. And nothing made any sense and I didn’t even hope it would. I followed paths that were there to be followed, I did what others said to do. I didn’t care…”
Even his old passion – the theatre – was something he only returned to out of habit. As a means of earning a living.
“…I found I was still a good enough actor. I got some good parts in London. Whatever they offered me, I took. Money meant nothing to me. I never thought of getting ahead. I never cared about it…”
The fact he became a stage star in a few years was almost an accident, the result of other people’s diligence, not his own.
What’s absent from this, and all other descriptions he gives of himself at this time is any self-pity. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. On the contrary, he saw himself as having been one of the lucky ones who came through “comparatively untouched.”
“I wasn’t shell-shocked or scarred up. But I had lost all sense of life’s realities.”
This fact, that he had come through “untouched” but “lost all sense of life’s realities” must have seemed ungrateful. He must have wondered why he wasn’t making a better job of appreciating his luck. Why he wasn’t just happy to be alive. He couldn’t see that he was damaged, sick, in need of help. And back then, before PTSD was even recognized, there was no one to tell him. Like so many other men of his generation, he could only struggle on, despising his own “weakness,” but powerless to leave it behind. In his own estimation he was:
“…such a weak fool…Letting myself be dragged here and there for no better reason than that..”
A hopeless weak fool who doesn’t deserve to be alive, waiting to die. How could anyone even begin to heal when that’s how they view themselves?
And I think that’s why BR basically didn’t heal. Why he just existed within his trauma and his damaged psyche, and why everything else he did after this time has to be viewed through that prism.
I think if we don’t factor that in then his life – especially his relationship with Ouida – would never make much sense, but when we do factor it in a lot of things start to explain themselves.
He was, in some ways, in the immediate post-war years, a disaster-in-waiting. I don’t know if Huxley’s portrait of the lost and self-destructive Theo was based on BR, as a reader alleges, but it certainly could have been. He was a man who didn’t think he deserved to be alive, but was, who didn’t think he should have success, but did. Part of him was always looking for a means of destroying it all as he “knew” he deserved.
It’s funny how this urge to self-destruction gives him something in common with Errol Flynn. Maybe it even helps to explain why Flynn apparently liked BR and why BR was so able to diagnose Flynn’s psyche. Maybe they both sensed that, however different their lives appeared on the surface, beneath the skin, they were kind of brothers. In the post-war years of the 1920s BR was living a fairly empty and hedonistic life, not unlike the life Flynn himself would be living fifteen years later. BR said of himself that he would have been dead before he was forty if not for Ouida, which, if true, would have beaten Flynn’s record for wanton self-destruction by a decade.
Maybe BR would indeed have drunk and whored himself to death at an early age if Ouida Bergere hadn’t turned up when she did. Maybe if Flynn had found a Ouida of his own he’d have lived to 75 and ended up doing movies like THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI just to keep his wife in hats.
But it’s only in stories that people are two-dimensional enough to be rescued from their demons by other people. In real life things don’t often have clean and happy endings. Ouida Bergere may well have prevented Basil from being dead before he was forty. But did she save his life?
Or simply prolong his existence?
Because I think we’ll agree they aren’t the same.