Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Lost Patrol (1934)

By 1934 John Ford was a seasoned veteran director with a vast library of feature length motion pictures to his credit. Through the silent age (pre 1929) Ford directed over 60 features alone and now well into the years of the talking picture he was continuing to hone his craft with the new dimension of sound added to the motion picture while never forgetting the story or the ever important stirring visuals a director can bring to a film. He would average more than a couple films a year, keeping very busy. Despite his large output it would be his 1934 picture The Lost Patrol that would begin to put the filmmaker on the pedestal of greatness, making his name renowned for motion picture prominence.

The Lost Patrol is a World War I drama about a unit lost in the Mesopotamian desert with no orders and no sense of direction, and their desperate attempt to survive attacks from an unseen  sharp shooting enemy. While moving through the desert, a British patrol’s commanding officer is killed by sniper fire, and with him the patrol’s orders and directions which only he knew, leaving the Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) and his men alone in the vast wildness. With no given orders or understanding where their brigade is, the men must try to find their way out of the desert and get in contact with their allies, while being pursued by unseen Arabian gunners who sporadically fire upon the soldiers. The men are picked off one or two at a time as the pack of eleven begins to shrink. They find refuge at an oasis, but the Arabian pursuers capture their horses and continue to kill more men. After a failed attempt of making contact with a passing biplane, the patrol falls into a madness from the torture of the desert and the mental anguish of enemy attacks. All that is left is the Sergeant as he fights off the Arabs with a lone machine gun who show as the enemy finally show their faces for the first time immediately before being rescued by the brigade that seems to come too late. The stirring moment comes at the moment when Sergeant is rescued and all he can do is look back on the graves of his fallen comrades who would not be coming home after this hell they shared.

This film manifests the talents of the gifted Ford blossoming to the great director he will one day be known as. The contrast of the men he films with the vast wildness backdrop gives a sense that the environment is a character unto itself, engulfing the men on screen. We will see this much more in his future works, as he will become the dominant force in shaping the genre of the western. Ford is able manifest the struggles of his characters with his cinematic skills, juggling the ideas of madness, weakness, inner strength, and helplessness all noticeably on the screen. His mastery of the camera and actors works magic in this picture of survival, giving us far more than just seeing men living in the desert. 1931’s Arrowsmith was Ford’s first acclaimed picture, garnering an Academy Award nomination for best picture, but this was a big step in the direction of defining a “John Ford film.”

To star in The Lost Patrol as the Sergeant was no stranger to John Ford pictures, Victor McLaglen. Coincidently enough this film was a remake of a silent British picture of from 1929 starring Victor’s younger brother Cyril in the very same role. Victor had worked with Ford before in previous films, but McLaglen success was primarily as a character actor, and a busy one at that. This English actor did a fine job playing the leader fighting the mental torture of the war in such a wasteland.

In supporting roles we find the infamous Boris Karloff, as an overly religious soldier whose mind gets the best of him, and Wallace Ford, one of the many soldiers that would be killed in the patrol. Karloff was best known for his role as the Monster in Frankenstein. His role in this film portrays the character with ever uplifting hope in the divine who will save them, but crumbles as his faith dissolve in the reality of the hell the men are in. John Ford would even hand a very small part to his older brother, Francis Ford, as a role of an Arab whom Sergeant kills at the end of the picture. This brief moment in a way a tribute to his brother, as Francis was the one that helped inspire John to get into the motion picture industry.

The picture was shot under grueling conditions. The locations used for the desert in the film were in the sand dunes of southeastern California and Yuma, Arizona, where it was reported that temperatures were commonly in the 100s. Even noted by Karloff in his autobiography temperatures were recorded as being in the range of 120-150 degrees. No doubt heat played an exhausting role in the production. It was also recounted that on many days cast members had calls of only two hours a day because of the oppressing heat.

One of the most noteworthy products of this picture in the epic score by Max Steiner. A contracted musical composer under RKO Pictures, Steiner had written some of the most memorable scores in the short history of sound motion picture, most remarkably by this time was his work on King Kong. In watching this film you can see, or rather listen, to how music is starting to evolve in its uses in motion pictures, underlining the story and the drama, instead of being used as a novelty and vehicle for off-shoots in the film. Steiner would be nominated for best score at the 7th Academy Awards for his work in The Lost Patrol, the first time best score was to be awarded by the Motion Picture Academy. He would not win, but it was far from his last nod from the Academy. Steiner would actually reuse the title score from The Lost Patrol, change tempo and other small aspects of it, and use it again as the opening theme in Casablanca.

The Lost Patrol may not the most memorable picture, but it was an important step in career of John Ford and his composer Max Steiner. The gritty war drama about survival is a movie that starts off slow, but works into a frenzy as you live alongside these men as they try to find a way to get away from the hell they are stuck in. It is a good film worth watching for John Ford fans as an example of his earlier (though not his earliest) work. It is a fine movie about the will to fight on and tragedy of loss.


  1. This is a dark and creepy film. I had pegged Queen Christina (1933) as the last time Hollywood would release an anti-war film before the pro-war films that would emerge in the middle of the decade after the rise of the Nazis was known. But this film comes about a month and a half after Queen Christina.

    1. So are you saying that this is the last anti-war film to come out before war starts to loom in Europe? An interesting idea.


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