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The Lost Patrol

The Lost Patrol(1934)

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Almost overlooked in the flurry of recent DVD releases showcasing the films of John Wayne, including a box set of key films made with director John Ford, is a 5-disc set of Ford's own work without the Duke - The John Ford Collection. It's an oddball mix that encompasses the 1964 box office flop Cheyenne Autumn, a sprawling, well-intentioned Western epic with a pro-Native American slant, and Katharine Hepburn as Mary of Scotland (1936). But it also contains The Informer (1935), which won Ford his first Oscar® as director, and the lesser known The Lost Patrol (1934), which was highly regarded in its day but fell out of critical favor in later years. Closer in tone to a horror film - and not only because of the presence of Boris Karloff in a major role - The Lost Patrol may not be a forgotten masterpiece but it is essential viewing for anyone interested in Ford's early career.

Set in the Mesopotamian Desert during the First World War, The Lost Patrol opens as a group of British soldiers are crossing the white sands under a broiling sun. A shot rings out from an unseen sniper and the commanding officer drops dead, without ever revealing his regiment's objective or their final destination. Scrambling for cover, the surviving soldiers make their way to a nearby oasis but are soon surrounded by their Arab enemies who manage to steal their horses in the dead of night. As their water and supplies dwindle, the small unit begins to realize their dire predicament which grows worse as phantom-like assassins pick off the men one by one. Even amongst themselves there is indecision over what to do - wait for help or attempt to escape? - and the complete breakdown of Sanders (Boris Karloff), whose religious convictions become mad ravings, drive tensions to the breaking point.

It soon becomes clear that the film's title has a double meaning. Not only are the soldiers hopelessly lost in the Mesopotamian Desert but they are without a clear purpose, even though a sergeant (Victor McLaglen) assumes command over the hapless group. This wasn't the first time Ford depicted a small group stranded in a perilous and claustrophobic situation. He explored similar situations previously in 3 Bad Men (1926) and Men Without Women (1930) and would return to this scenario in Stagecoach (1939), 3 Godfathers (1948) and other features. In many ways, The Lost Patrol marked the beginning of Ford's emergence as an important filmmaker in the eyes of critics during the early sound era. Although he had certainly enjoyed success in the silent era with commercial hits such as The Iron Horse (1924), his mastery of the new sound technology combined with a more sophisticated sense of editing and visual composition won him the right to direct more ambitious projects after The Lost Patrol.

Although Ford has described The Lost Patrol in interviews as a character study, the emphasis is on the stripped down narrative as the soldiers are barely developed as individuals on-screen before they are killed off. Ford does attempt to provide identities for each of them in the film's brief running time but they remain little more than stereotypes - the mama's boy, the hothead, the Italian recruit, etc. Only the Sergeant and Sanders stand out from the rest for different reasons; [SPOILER ALERT] the former because he emerges as the hero and sole survivor and the latter because his unstable behavior puts the men at jeopardy. What is most memorable about the film, however, is the impending sense of doom and stark setting. The fact that the deadly snipers remain unseen by the patrol - and the audience - until the film's climax establishes a sense of unease and dread not unlike a horror thriller. In fact, Ford's refusal to humanize them in any way gives them an almost supernatural power. In 1976, Italian director Valerio Zurlini would take a similar scenario in Il Deserto dei Tartari (The Desert of the Tartars) (available from NoShame Films) and transform it into theatre of the absurd - an isolated desert garrison prepares for an enemy attack that never comes as the months turn to years and the endless waiting drives the men to paranoia and eccentric behavior.

The Lost Patrol received mostly positive reviews in 1934 (The National Board of Review placed it in the year's Top 10) but even then Boris Karloff's performance as the religious crackpot was considered over-the-top by most critics and it hasn't improved with age. The other complaint is Max Steiner's overbearing score which is omnipresent throughout. Originally the film wasn't supposed to have any music but the eerie desert silence of numerous scenes was too much for the producer who opted to add a score after viewing the completed film. Ironically, it received an Oscar® nomination for Best Score though it seems merely distracting now. What does hold up remarkably well today is Harold Wenstrom's evocative cinematography and Victor McLaglen's surprisingly restrained performance as the perplexed sergeant. As a contrast to the blustery, bigger than life personas of similar characters he's played in Gunga Din (1939) and Call Out the Marines (1942), he's subdued and fallible though he has one classic freak-out sequence, laughing hysterically with machine gun blazing that would do Sam Peckinpah proud. His final scene, in particular, performed without dialogue as he acknowledges his fallen comrades, achieves a tragic grandeur.

Filmed over a ten-day period on location in Yuma, Arizona where temperatures climbed to 110 degrees, The Lost Patrol was a remake of the same titled 1929 British film which featured Cyril McLaglen, Victor's brother, in the role of the sergeant. And Ford's 1934 version would serve as the inspiration for other war dramas with isolated settings such as Bataan (1943) and Sahara (1943) and even westerns like Bad Lands (1939) and Escape from Fort Bravo (1953).

For more information about The Lost Patrol, visit Warner Video. To order The Lost Patrol (It is only available by purchasing the entire John Ford Collection), go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeff Stafford