They (the Film Gods I presume) say there are 7 basic story lines that have been handed down since man first began to tell stories. If that is true then the plot behind THE LOST PATROL (1934) surely must be one of them. In THE LOST PATROL, a British patrol becomes lost in the desert. But the premise of a group of people lost, getting picked off one by one by an unseen enemy, could happen in so many different premises: a haunted house, a space ship, the wilderness, an island or the western frontier. 3:10 TO YUMA (1957 and 2007), SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981), THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965), ALIEN (1979), ALIENS (1986), AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945), and SAHARA (1943) are just a few of hundreds of films with this simple plot. The entire FRIDAY THE 13TH horror series owes its roots to THE LOST PATROL with horny teenagers replacing British soldiers.
THE LOST PATROL is deserves attention as it is director John Ford's first noteworthy film. Ford, who would become famous for his collaboration with John Wayne in Westerns such as STAGECOACH (1939), FORT APACHE (1948), and THE SEARCHERS (1956) had been a director during the silent film era but PATROL is one of his early successful sound films. Although Ford did direct films set in other time periods, the Western is where he's most regarded. THE LOST PATROL is one of his few period films not set in the Wild West or World War II. Based on the story Patrol by Philip MacDonald, screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Garrett Fort wrote the screenplay. A silent version just called LOST PATROL also based on MacDonald's story was made in 1929.
Director Ford opens THE LOST PATROL with such a simple action. Lieutenant Hawkins (Neville Clark) leading a British patrol on horseback across the Mesopotamian desert (now present day Iraq) in 1917 is shot and killed by an unseen Arab assassin. Hawkins was the only one who knew their mission and destination. The Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) takes over command as bullets fly. The Sergeant and his patrol ride over sand dunes until they spy an isolated oasis: palm trees, water, and an abandoned mosque. As the patrol buries their lieutenant, the Sergeant tries to maintain order and discipline amongst his men as they figure out their next move.
We get to learn a little about THE LOST PATROL as they remove their Pith helmets and we see who some of the men are. There is Sanders (Boris Karloff), the religious fanatic; Morelli (Wallace Ford), who thinks he's bad luck; George Brown (Reginald Denny), the cynic; and Quincannon (J.M. Kerrigan), the Sergeant's loyal friend. As the men recuperate from their dire circumstances, they reflect upon their mortality, their wives and girlfriends back home, and their dreams if they ever make it out of this hellish Garden of Eden.
The oasis turns out to be anything but paradise as the lost patrol battles heat, sandstorms, Arab snipers, and each other. Pearson (Douglas Walton), an idealistic young soldier, is found dead the next morning at his post and the horses missing. Next, Hale (Billy Bevan) climbs up one of the palm trees for a better look when he's picked off by the sniper. In a desperate move, the Sergeant has the men draw lots for a suicide mission for two of the patrol to go on foot for help. Cook (Alan Hale) and McKay (Paul Hanson) draw the mission. The patrol watch them walk into the shimmering heat, disappearing like mirages. A day later two horses return carrying the mutilated bodies of Cook and McKay.
THE LOST PATROL'S men begin to lose their sanity. Abelson (Sammy Stein) wanders aimlessly into the desert. Sanders tries to kill the Sergeant and has to be restrained. Just when the band of soldiers have almost lost hope, an English bi-plane passes over and circles the besieged oasis, landing nearby. A rescue looks imminent but the rescuing pilot (Howard Wilson) also succumbs to a sniper's bullet. The Sergeant removes the machine gun from the plane as the British troop dwindles down to just the Sergeant. The Arab marauders finally reveal themselves in a final battle as the Sergeant tries to hold off the desert invaders until the brigade arrives.
Themes that director John Ford will use throughout his career pop up in THE LOST PATROL. Ford likes to pit Man vs Nature as the patrol battles the elements: heat, wind, and sand. At times, nature is harder on the patrol then the unseen snipers. Other Ford films that pit Man against Nature include 1937's HURRICANE (storm), 1940's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (wind and dust), and even THE SEARCHERS (the four seasons). Ford photographs panoramic, expansive vistas and shows man as small, insignificant ants against the backdrop of massive buttes and mesas.
Director Ford also reveals his love of military conventions for the first time in THE LOST PATROL. Ford often focused on the everyday life of units, patrols, troops, and all the pomp and circumstance that comes with it. In FORT APACHE, he stages a fancy military ball where the dancing is as choreographed as a troop inspection. In RIO GRANDE, he shows the life of a military family and the toll it takes on marriage and relationships. Ford's Calvary Trilogy equates family and a cavalry troop as interchangeable.
In THE LOST PATROL, the men are all individually different (class, experience, age) but the unit brings them together. PATROL should be a grim survival film but director Ford romanticizes the patrol's predicament with humor and patriotism. Composer Max Steiner's score is always uplifting (and his opening theme will be reworked later in 1943's CASABLANCA). As one man after another falls, the Sergeant makes sure that each man's sword is placed upright in their grave, six shiny swords gleaming in the desert sun, silver monuments to the dead. Ford also implies in THE LOST PATROL (and later FORT APACHE) that it's not always the top commander who holds the unit together but one of the subordinates (like the Sergeant in PATROL).
Speaking of family, director Ford would accumulate a family of actors he would use over and over again throughout his prolific career (including some actual family members). The only one in THE LOST PATROL who would continually pop up in future Ford films is the lead Victor McLaglen who plays the Sergeant. It's fun to see a young, strapping McLaglen in PATROL as I was more accustomed with the older, heavier McLaglen from RIO GRANDE (1950) and THE QUIET MAN (1952). In a case of art imitating real life, McLaglen actually served with the Irish Fusiliers in Mesopotamia (Iraq) during World War I when PATROL takes place. McLaglen was Ford's leading man in Ford's early films like THE LOST PATROL and 1936's THE INFORMER before Ford would cast a young John Wayne in 1939's STAGECOACH and the rest is history. But McLaglen would just move on to colorful supporting roles in Ford films, usually playing an Irish rogue of some sort (even though McLaglen was born in England, of Scottish ancestry).
Another actor not normally seen in a John Ford film or a non-horror film is Boris Karloff cast as the deeply religious soldier Sanders. It's nice to see Karloff who normally played monsters (FRANKENSTEIN) and mad scientists (HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) in an adventure film. Sanders seems on the verge of having a mental breakdown at the beginning of the film. He's always with his Bible and after reading one of its passages, believes his desert assignment is God punishing him. But he goes mad in the so-called Garden of Eden and runs into the desert with a makeshift crucifix to sacrifice himself to the enemy in a Christ-like action.
The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly fine. Reginald Denny as the enigmatic George Brown reminds me of a young William Holden. Denny had matinee idol good looks. Brown reveals he comes from money and that he enlisted using the alias George Brown. Brown probably didn't have to fight and he's clearly disenchanted with what he thought was a noble cause. Brown is the only man who deserts the patrol and we never learn his fate although he leaves a note with Sanders that he's trying to circle around the enemy.
A favorite supporting actor of mine Alan Hale has a small role as Cook, one of the doomed British soldiers. Hale, a gregarious performer, would have been a perfect addition to Ford's repertoire of actors but Hale would instead partner with director Michael Curtiz and actor Errol Flynn in several films instead including THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) and SANTE FE TRAIL (1940). Wallace Ford (no relation to the director) as Morelli is one of the films more sympathetic characters. He's the guy audiences would like to see survive -- funny, self-deprecating, and honorable but THE LOST PATROL does not play favorites. Ford would have a long career in film and television.
One of the many reasons I like John Ford films is he was one of the first directors to film on location. For his Westerns, he favored Monument Valley in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Most films in the 30's were filmed in studio sound stages or on back lots. THE LOST PATROL'S exteriors are shot in Yuma, Arizona and Buttercup Dunes in southern California where according to IMDB the temperatures reached 150 degrees (if Ford was seeking realistic Mesopotamian temperatures he succeeded).
THE LOST PATROL is a good opportunity to see an early work by director John Ford as he began to develop his style and themes that would carry him to great success over the next thirty years. I wouldn't declare THE LOST PATROL a classic but the film has one of the classic plots that writers and directors continue to use today.