#17 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Once again, John Ford makes a movie about World War I that feels one step removed from actual combat. Adapted from the novel Patrol by Philip MacDonald, it’s a tightly focused story of a small group of men largely in a single location. I actually thought that it had originated as a play. The tight focus allows for a very strong attention to character, never making the 70-minute runtime feel overstuffed or rushed. It’s comfortable in construction, which is an interesting contrast to the uncomfortable nature of the material as we watch this group of men steadily lose themselves.
Within a minute of the start of this film, the eponymous patrol does indeed becomes lost. Their officer, an unnamed lieutenant, is shot dead by an unseen Arab force at the head of the column and his men, led by the Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) bury him quickly in the sands and head off, soon finding a remote oasis in the desert with a lone manmade structure. Without any knowledge of their orders that the lieutenant had carried to paper concerning or having divulged it before his death, the patrol parks themselves to gather water from the small pool and shield themselves from the enemy just out of sight.
We get to know the men, namely Morelli (Wallace Ford), George Brown (Reginald Denny), and Sanders (Boris Karloff). Morelli is a level-headed everyman, Brown is a rich materialist who believes in that which he experiences, and Sanders is a religious man who is horrified at the tales that Brown tells, begging him to repent for the safety of his soul. There are fights, efforts to reconnoiter that end in death, and increasing tension as the days drag on and their numbers dwindle. Over all of this is the Sergeant, trying to come up with some kind of plan to figure out where they are and how to get either out or support from the battalion that is out there, somewhere.
Drawing lots, the Sergeant sends two men north towards the river to find the battalion and bring back help. Left behind with dwindling numbers, it’s soon only Morelli, Sanders, and the Sergeant, and Sanders is going insane. The others are barely holding onto their own sanity in the heat and isolation with death always just over the dunes around them, and then here comes Sanders screaming about the Lord. Contemporary reviews knocked the film because of Karloff’s performance as Sanders, and I think they had a point. In a cast of largely naturalistic performers, Karloff stands out as notably unrealistic. Is the performance appropriate for the role? It probably goes too far early, but I think it actually ends on an appropriate level.
Like many John Ford movies, the ending to The Lost Patrol is great. One man is left, grabbing a machine gun from an errant airplane that landed nearby and finishing the mission he found himself with. There’s a strong sense of irony in the way things resolve that helps to underline the sacrifice, heroism, and bravery of the dwindling number of men when the battalion shows up a few minutes too late to make much of a difference, but it’s a surprisingly heartfelt irony. Whatever their original mission had been, their new mission, to survive, was partially completed.
The film continues Ford’s very strong but unshowy visual style, with strong compositions throughout that just quickly cut to the point. From framings that can alternately highlight the isolation of the men in the middle of the desert to the compact nature of their small hideout, Ford is able to effectively help tell his story using the camera. There are also simply great things to look at, like Sanders’ last stand, climbing up a dune, or the arrival of the column, framed by palm trees.
The sense of camaraderie among the men gets frayed, torn apart, but ultimately, as our last survivor looks back over the graves dug for the lost men, the loss of the men isn’t forgotten or unfelt. There’s real sadness there as they get left behind in the middle of nowhere forever.