I thought I’d pay a little tribute now to one of my heroes of classic cinema, Basil Rathbone, one of the truly great character actors of the 1930’s and 40’s. Not only is he a great actor, but he’s also one of the most truly awesome swordsman in Hollywood. Throughout most of his career he was often typecast in the role of the villain in several major films such as Sir Guy of Gisborne in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Esteban Pasquale in The Mark of Zorro, Levasseur in Captain Blood, and many many others. But when he wasn’t busy trying to kill Errol Flynn, he got to take his heroic turn as Sherlock Holmes in a 14 film series.
It was actually The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first in the series of Sherlock Holmes films that made me a fan of his. It was probably my first real introduction to him, and I just loved his take on the character of Sherlock Holmes. He was just really fun to watch as he interacted with Nigel Bruce as Watson, who played Watson as a more befuddled, comical character. The two of them were a great team together. There are little things about Hound of the Baskervilles that are just plain cool, like at the end of the film when Holmes decides to go to bed, he turns to Watson and says “Watson, the needle”, indicating a hint at Holmes addiction to morphine. I remember the first time I saw it too, I was actually fooled by Holmes disguise as a hermit living out on the marsh. Holmes also never seemed to mind goading at Watson and poking some fun at him once in awhile, and the way the two characters bounced off each other made for a memorable team.
One of the greatest things I love about Basil Rathbone is his ability as a swordsman. He’s just incredible to watch, even when he’s fighting the likes of Errol Flynn in Robin Hood or Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro, the intensity and energy he brings to those scenes is just fantastic. I think his fight in Zorro is probably my favorite of all his films, as Tyrone Power was just as much a master of the sword and the two of them would just unleash on each other. It’s a great exciting moment in the film. Rathbone had some funny quips about his sword fights with Errol Flynn, as he remarked later in his career “I could have killed Errol Flynn any day!” In someways, I believe him after watching the fight scenes in Robin Hood and Captain Blood. Even though he never won, I was always secretly rooting for Basil to kick his ass, and I only wish someday I could see a real fencing match between the two just for the sake of fairness. But I’m willing to bet every time Basil would be king.
As a villain, I always loved how he could pull off so well that sinister edge. I notice half the time he was usually the henchman to the main villain of the story, but Rathbone was always the one carrying out the villains agenda, sent out to kill someone or take action on the villains behalf. But yet there was always some sense of sympathy to his characters that made you wonder how he got to be so vengeful to his fellow man. He was rarely ever the boss, but you could imagine the horror in something like Robin Hood if Gisborne were in charge over Prince John. He would probably wind up ordering genocide on the poor! He was always a major presence that everyone made sure to take seriously. But thankfully, we got Holmes on the other end of it to show his much lighter side. That character must have been a blessing for his career, which finally gave audiences a reason to root for him. But as much as we love him for Holmes, I think audiences just as much love to hate him for being the mean, nasty, son of a bitch he could be.
I don’t really know if today we have an equal to Basil Rathbone as an actor. Of course, I suppose Rathbone is an actor for his time. But he always gave the most in everything he did. He could be just as evil as he was charming. I always even felt he did have a kind of sex appeal as well. He could never seem to win out against Errol Flynn, but Rathbone in my mind was always the better actor and could be far more versatile. He is one of my absolute favorite actors of the early days of cinema, and I don’t think there will be anyone else quite like him.
And if you ever wanted to know just how cool the guy was, here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia page: “Rathbone was once arrested in 1926 along with every other member of the cast of ‘The Captive’, a play in which his character’s wife left him for another woman. Though the charges were eventually dropped, Rathbone was very angry about the censorship because he believed that homosexuality needed to be brought into the open.“