November 11 is Veterans Day in the USA and Armistice Day in the United Kingdom. It’s an appropriate time to look again at Rathbone’s military service.
The most terrifying experience Basil Rathbone lived through was The Great War, now known as World War I. He served his country in the 2/10 Liverpool Scottish battalion and was awarded a Military Cross for bravery. Rathbone downplayed his heroic actions, though, and would have preferred to stay out of the war. He wished that there would be no war.
In late 1939 (with World War II soon approaching), a journalist from Modern Screen magazine interviewed Basil Rathbone for an article called “Horror Men Talk about Horror” (published in the January 1940 issue). Here is an excerpt from that article:
I began with Basil Rathbone. I said, “What constitutes real horror to you?”
“War!” screamed Rathbone, instantly. And I mean he screamed the word at me, horribly, so that its echoes hung around the room we sat in. “Going into an attack, paralyzed with fear, knowing that if we had our own free will, not a living man of us would go! Every living man of us would funk it. We go because we cease to be individuals. We become a mass machine. We are dominated by mass psychology. We become a composite Thing of arms, legs, heads and wills. We move into the attack only because it is the only way out. If we do not go into the attack, if we turn back one quivering inch, we are shot down like dogs—deserters. So we are forced to go forward, not because we are brave and gallant gentlemen, but because we are in a trap.
“War is a trap, a monstrous, gigantic, inconceivably barbarous trap. And there you have it. A trap is the most horrible thing in the world. Any kind of trap. Because in a trap you are alone, crouched there with fear. There is Death screaming at you in front. There is Death sticking his tongue out at you from behind. You go over the top because it is the only way to get out. If there were any other way, a million voices would chorus, ‘I can’t face it! I can’t face walking over the broken bodies of my comrades, over their spilled hearts and hopes and dreams. I can’t and I won’t.’
“I never stuck a bayonet into a man in my life. If I had, I would have known such horror that I would have screamed aloud and the scream would have wakened me out of the mass murder psychosis which alone preserved my reason. I would then have become an individual and would have lost my mind. I would have spent the rest of my life cutting out paper soldiers, tearing them apart, like that poor chap glimpsed in ‘The Little Princess,’ How many of him I have seen—not in pictures for the kiddies!
“War, I say, that’s horror! It is a trap. In the trap a man, no longer a man, lives with Death. There is no horror like it!”
The “horror men” interviewed were Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, and Bela Lugosi. You can read the article here: horrormen
To learn more about Basil Rathbone’s experiences in the First World War, see these related posts: