Sunday, 3 November 2013

Even More from
 'The Arsenal Stadium Mystery':
Leslie Banks was notable among actors of his generation that how he was filmed had a significant relevance to the character he was depicting. As a soldier in the First World War, Banks had received serious facial wounds that left him scarred around his left eye. As such, when playing villains the camera would linger on the left of his face to emphasis his scars. However, as the eccentric Inspector Slade he wore thick rimmed glasses to conceal the scars, only leaving them visible in a handful of shots:
Leslie Banks with visible scars
Leslie Banks with glasses to conceal the scars
Whilst Banks was scarred from action in the First World War, one of his fellow actors in The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was soon to receive serious facial injuries in the Second World War:
Esmond Knight and Leslie Banks
Esmond Knight
As an officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), Knight was posted to HMS Prince of Wales, the Royal Navy's most modern battleship. In 1941, whilst in pursuit of the Bismarck, a shell hit the bridge of the Prince of Wales, killing many sailors.
Sixteen year old Albert Riddle was standing beside Esmond Knight on the ship's Air Defence Platform when the shell struck. His account was later included in the book Blitz Kids by historian Sean Longden:
The Prince of Wales had thrown itself into battle, opening fire on the Bismarck, yet now had become the target for both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. The end of the sea battle came in an instant. With astounding accuracy, a 15-inch shell struck her bridge, exploding as it passed out the far side. On the Air Defence Platform, just above the bridge, young Albert Riddle was standing beside Lt Esmond Knight. The contrast between the two couldn’t have been greater: the sixteen-year old boy who had gone straight into the Royal Navy, and the 35 year old actor, a star of stage and screen who had volunteered for the Royal Navy at the outbreak of war. The noise and heat of the shell was something Riddle was never able to forget: “Esmond Knight was my officer, he was in charge of all the lookouts. He was standing just behind me. This shell went between us – just inches away - and blinded him.”  The shell exploded beneath them on the bridge.
Riddle went quickly down to the bridge to see if he could help. He was confronted by a scene of absolute carnage: “Captain Leach was a wonderful man. He was the only one left standing He and the gunnery officer were the only two who survived.” The youngster looked at the rest of the men on the bridge: “They were blown to bloody smithereens. It was a terrible shock. It’s not a thing I’ve ever talked about. These people were absolutely blown to bits.” They had not suffered the type of clean death so often portrayed in the films of the period: “The voice pipes, leading down to the engine room, were full of flesh and blood - bits of people’s bodies – there was blood all over the floor.” Despite the carnage, the captain remained calm: “I can still see Leach now, he said ‘Is there anybody who can stomach cleaning this up?’ He was looking for volunteers. I was quite happy with it. It didn’t sicken me. I just got cracking. Some people couldn’t do it. I was always fine with that sort of thing.” Looking back nearly seventy years later, Riddle was able to explain why, despite his youth, he had been able to help clear up the shattered corpses: “I think it was coming from a farm, I was more used to the idea of blood and mess. I used to help sheep give birth, or help the horse when she was foaling.” The shell had killed fourteen seamen, with two of the casualties just seventeen years old. (copyright - Blitz Kids - The Children's War Against Hitler by Sean Longden. Constable & Robinson, 2012)
The impact of the shell left Esmond Knight totally blind for two years, with some sight later returning to one eye. Despite his wounds he continued acting. In 1960 Knight was cast as Captain Leach, his own commanding officer on the Prince of Wales, and recreated the scene of his own wounding:
Esmond Knight as Captain Leach in Sink the Bismarck

HMS Prince of Wales struck by shells in Sink the Bismarck
Esmond Knight as Captain Leach in Sink the Bismarck
The aftermath of the explosion as depicted in Sink the Bismarck. This was the scene as witnessed by Riddle who had been standing beside Esmond Knight when he was blinded.

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