BLISTERING SUN…BLAZING BULLETS!
Today I will make a few enemies, I am sure. I am going to be less than glowing about one of the great John Ford’s films. It isn’t The Searchers though, but the lesser and much earlier The Lost Patrol from 1934.
Ford by this time was already one of the leading directors, though if his career ended in 1934 he would merit only a few paragraphs in any official history. His truly great films were still years in the future.
So that brings us back to The Lost Patrol which stars one of Ford’s early favorites, Victor McLaglen, in the lead role. The title explains the plot well enough. When their somewhat secretive commander is killed, a British patrol becomes lost in the Mesopotamian desert, with McLaglen taking command as the ranking officer. Harried, exhausted, and without their horses (stolen by the Arabs they are fighting), the patrol hunkers down at a small oasis in hopes of holding out until they are found by their brigade.
Isolated and alone, the patrol slowly looses their minds, until only McLaglen remains. It is a story which could have been very powerful and has been executed better since (and even prior) to 1934. McLaglen carries the picture, almost dripping with the real life experiences he had of war during his service in World War One.
The rest of the cast, with one exception, is flat and relatively nondescript. The one exception is Boris Karloff, who unintentionally detracts severely from the film with his ludicrous and grossly over-exaggerated performance. His role as a religious zealot is ripe with the usual Biblical quotations and the like, but is also chock full of wild arm movements, overdone facial gestures, which results in an unintentionally humorous effort.
Outside of Karloff, the rest of the patrol seems just to serve as sniper fodder, as they each seem to stand bolt upright as they go crazy, giving the surrounding Arabs easy targets. In many ways it is like watching the latest horror film, with the only pleasure being in playing a game of “Guess Who Gets Killed Next?”
Hopefully Ford was working on some symbolism here, but it is hard to fathom the reason why a pilot would fly over the area and presumably see the Arabs surrounding the patrol, but then land immediately in front of them. That’s right, he’s dead. And the guy who shimmies up the palm tree to have a look see? You got it. Dead. Funny how that keeps happening.
Even accounting for the age of the film and how times have changed, The Lost Patrol hasn’t aged overly well. The acting is stiff and almost hammy even outside of Karloff’s posturing, with McLaglen being the glue which holds everything together. Yes, it was still relatively early in the sound era, but other directors seemed to overcome the need for this over-dramatized style earlier than Ford.
The film did receive one Academy Award Nomination, that being for Max Steiner’s score, which at times has some punch but at others wanders into underdeveloped themes. Steiner, one of film’s great recyclers of popular music, leans here as well on traditional melodies. If you listen closely, you’ll hear secondary themes which later were further developed for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Casablanca.
The Lost Patrol for many years was very hard to find and watch and, perhaps as a result of this, took on a somewhat iconic status with film historians and Ford biographers. From my perspective perhaps this is a case of absence makes the heart grow fonder. As an almost “lost” Ford film, the mystique grew far beyond the reality.
It is an interesting picture, if only for seeing a lesser known work of John Ford’s as he expanded his knowledge and repertoire in the sound medium. There are hints of the later Ford here for the informed. Two are perhaps most significant. First, Karloff’s death atop a sand dune with a makeshift cross in hand, surely echoes Ford’s perspective on religion. Second, the final shot of the picture, a framed shot of the graves of the patrol, with each grave marked by a respective sword stuck in the ground, is almost as iconic as the parting shot from The Searchers, where Ethan stands in the doorway.