The Lost Patrol
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Probably more than any other American filmmaker, John Ford dealt in overtly iconic imagery. For better or worse, his personal rendering of the Old West has come to represent the promise of America in many people's minds; even the most cynical movie fan can be forgiven for occasionally thinking that John Wayne blazed a trail through Monument Valley. It's something of a surprise, then, that Ford always cited The Lost Patrol (1934) as one of his favorite films. Aside from a highly melodramatic performance by Boris Karloff, and an omnipresent score by Max Steiner, The Lost Patrol is a grueling piece of minimalism. It looks and feels like nothing else in Ford's oeuvre.
The film opens with a patrol of British cavalrymen riding through the Mesopotamian Desert. The one officer who is familiar with their mission is shot by a sniper, leaving the men stranded with no orders and no real knowledge of where they are. A hardened sergeant (Victor McLaglen) takes command of the unit, although all he's able to do is lead them to an oasis, where the men are shot down, one after another, by unseen riflemen. Eventually, only the sergeant, a man named Morelli (Wallace Ford), and a religious fanatic named Sanders (Boris Karloff) are left to ponder their fates. The situation finally drives Sanders insane.
Critics have alternately hailed The Lost Patrol as a flawed masterpiece and a failed experiment. In reality, it's probably a little bit of both. Certainly, there's an ethereal quality to the picture that sticks with you long after it's over. And Karloff's transformation into a wild-eyed Christ figure casts a bizarre spell, even though his over-the-top histrionics seems geared for a silent film, not a talkie. But it may be the elusive metaphor of a group of leaderless soldiers being picked off by an enemy they can't even see that breeds the most fascination. Different viewers will read different meanings into the sparse narrative.
. Even at such an early point in movie history, this wasn't the first time Philip MacDonald's novel, Patrol, had been adapted for the screen. In fact, a 1929 British version starred Cyril McLaglen, Victor's brother, as the Sergeant! Ford and his screenwriting partner, Dudley Nichols, attempted to add some depth by giving the soldiers an opportunity to sound off about their personal histories before taking their bullets, an approach that works better with some characters than with others.
This was the first collaboration between Ford and Nichols, who would later team up on such legendary films as The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939), and The Long Voyage Home (1940). "I was working at Fox again," Nichols later remembered, "when Ford, who had gone to RKO to make a modest film from Philip MacDonald's war novel, Patrol, called me, in some urgency. He was to start shooting in about ten days - and had no script. What had been done, he considered a mess and unshootable." Nichols and Ford sat down and pounded out a new script in eight days, then the picture was filmed in ten days, in the desert around Yuma Arizona.
The heat in the desert was unbearable, sometimes reaching upwards of 120 degrees. This led to one of those stories that Ford loved to tell about foolish producers who didn't know what they were dealing with. This one involved a pampered type who ruined an important shot by landing his plane too close to the location. Ford was livid when the horses scattered and left unwanted hoof-prints all over the dunes. The producer then approached Ford and suggested that the cast and crew should start taking shorter breaks to speed up filming. "But you can't work in the heat," Ford said. "Jack," the producer said, "it's great. I've never felt so good in my life." He then proceeded to enthusiastically stroll around the set, bare-headed and puffing his cigar. About an hour later, Ford, needed to confer with the producer- but he was already in the hospital with sunstroke.
Director: John Ford
Producer: Cliff Reid
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols (based on the novel Patrol by Philip MacDonald)
Cinematography: Harold Wenstrom
Editor: Paul Weatherwax
Music: Max Steiner
Art Designer: Van Nest Polglase and Sidney Ullman
Cast: Victor McLaglen (The Sergeant), Boris Karloff (Sanders), Wallace Ford (Morelli), Reginald Denny (George Brown), J.M. Kerrigan (Quincannon), Billy Bevan (Herbert Hale), Alan Hale (Cook), Brandon Hurst (Bell), Douglas Walton (Pearson), Sammy Stein (Abelson), Howard Wilson (Aviator), Neville Clark (Lt. Hawkins), Paul Hanson (Jock Mackay).
B&W-66m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara