Obi Wan Kenobi Goes to War
Already an establish actor on the British stage, in 1941, Alec Guinness (1914-2000), was accepted as an officer candidate in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. By his own account, Guinness says this was apparently solely on the basis of the fact that he could swim, since otherwise the interviewing petty officer made repeated “little disparaging shakes of the head” to virtually every answer he gave during his pre-induction interview. During his physical, however, the examining officer was greatly impressed with Guinness’ ability to expand his chest by four inches, the result of years of voice training.
As did all officer candidates, Guinness – who served using his full name, Alec Guinness Cuffe – was initially enrolled as an ordinary seaman in HMS Raleigh, a shore-side basic training establishment near Plymouth, and then proceeded to other bases for more advanced training, at each step going through additional screenings, in which he was helped by the advice from a fellow actor who was already an officer, “just act the part.”
After more schooling, and some practical experience, Guinness was commissioned a temporary sub-lieutenant in 1942, by which time he was training as a landing craft commander. Completing the course, Guinness was assigned to command an LCI(L) – landing craft, infantry (large). As his vessel was actually under construction in Boston, he sailed for America aboard the Queen Mary. Arriving in the U.S., Guinness was not displeased to learn that HMS LCI(L)-124 would not be ready for some time. Pulling in a few favors, he was able to secure a role in the American premier of the play Flare Path, which opened at the Henry Miller Theatre on Broadway on December 23, 1942.
In Flare Path, about the lives of R.A.F. officers and their wives and sweethearts, Guinness played a young flight lieutenant. The New York Times review called the play “slow and sentimental,” but observed that this impression might be due to the fact that the reviewer – like most Americans – had never been bombed. The reviewer went on to say that Guinness, in his American debut, brought “nervous energy and bounce to the part,” but was not always convincing. Essentially a puff piece written with the support of Bomber Command, the play closed in early January, after only 14 performances.
Guinness was shortly at sea in command of LCI(L)-124, and was promoted to temporary lieutenant in April of 1943. He first saw action during the landings in Sicily (July 9, 1943), in the course of which LCI(L)-124 was fouled by another vessel and remained stuck on the beach for more than a week. Guinness and his crew – all 17 of them – later supported Allied operations in Italy, helped land the French on Elba (June 17, 1944), and then ran supplies to the Yugoslav Partisans until the vessel was wrecked in a storm off the Italian port of Termoli in early 1945. Guinness held various assignments thereafter until he was released from the service shortly after the end of the war.
Guinness later claimed that his training as an actor helped him be a better officer, since so much of what an officer does is acting. And apparently his experiences as an officer helped him become a better actor, for he admitted to modelling officers that he was asked to play in the course of his acting career on men whom he had known while in the service.
The Looter’s Benefactor
On June 28, 1812, just days after launching his invasion of Russia, Napoleon captured Vilna. While in the city, one of his soldiers chanced to pick up a little loot, in the form of a nice little cache of gold coins. Fearing to take them with him on campaign, the man concealed them in a small village near the town, figuring to pick them up when the war was over.
Over the next weeks and months the soldier had a hard war, marching and fighting all the way to Moscow, and then taking part in the terrible retreat that caused the Grand Armée to come to pieces. By good fortune he was taken prisoner by the Russians. He was not released until a dozen years later.
Making his way west, the soldier, remembered his gold stash and upon reaching Vilna, sought it out. Digging up the small tin box in which he had deposited the coins, he found, upon opening it, not his money, but a letter.
The letter informed him that he had been seen hiding the money, and that the observer had taken it, and would deposit it with a certain bank in Nancy. All the soldier had to do was present the letter to the bank and he would receive his money, with interest.
Although he believed that he had been “robbed,” upon reaching France, the soldier nevertheless inquired at the bank in Nancy. Lo! there was his money, plus 12 years’ interest. Although he made inquiries as to who had deposited the money, neither the bank nor anyone else would provide any information. With this money, the man was able to set himself up in business, becoming quite prosperous, while marrying and raising a family.
FootNote: An old Italian saying, “Si non e vero, e buon trovato – If it’s not true, it’s well told,” would seem to apply to this tale, which turned up in several European newspapers and magazines in the late 1820s. Assuming – and that’s a big “assuming” – it’s true, it would seem likely that the soldier’s unknown benefactor would have had to have been a rather senior officer. After all, anyone else would merely have pocketed the money, and while some of Napoleon’s generals were notorious looters, for most the sum involved would have been trifling. And only a general, or perhaps even a marshal, would have had the connections to be able to put the money on deposit in France. So if the story is true, which general was it?