Every month, Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.
This month I didn’t pick a favourite or an essential (The Public Enemy, The Thin Man, or I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would better qualify in those categories) but instead went for a movie that I’ve always found really interesting for its place in director John Ford’s career, and for the creative ways a war drama playing out on a tiny battlefield in the middle of the endless desert yields a lot of memorable imagery and fine performances.
The Lost Patrol is a British Army regiment trekking through the Mesopotamian desert during World War I. They’re lost because a sniper kills their commanding officer, and unfortunately that C.O. never told the men where they were, where they were headed or what their mission was. Sergeant Victor McLaglen assumes command and has to find a way out of the desert while keeping his men alive and sane in the heat and hopelessness. When the group finds an impossibly beautiful oasis they stop to recharge and regroup; it’s not long before one of them is killed and the other badly wounded. Arab sharpshooters, who seem to be everywhere and totally invisible, eliminate the soldiers one by one as they stand guard, try to find a way to safety or lose their minds and wander too far out into open desert. The place may look like the Garden of Eden, but to them it feels like Hell.
In the smallish setting you get some big themes and an large ensemble character-driven story. The men struggle to be brave and positive in their desperation, open up to and depend on each other, share memories, secrets and fears, or crack and give in to despair and madness. Out of the horror, loss and heartbreak we get a message of appreciation for companionship and life’s small pleasures. Some reviewers find the movie overacted or overdone, but to me it’s simple and spare, and Ford does a lot with very little symbolism, imagery, and direction. You never even see the enemy until the very last minutes of the film.
Each man gets a little moment that’s conveniently placed in the short movie, usually right before their demise, but none of it seems forced or predictable. Boris Karloff plays a religious man who clings tighter to Bible and faith as the situation grows more dire. As he senses the end is near he tries to convert others and eventually he snaps, has to be restrained, and manages to escape into the desert and into full religious symbolism to signify his breakdown. Karloff’s character gets a heavy handed and clumsy treatment and gets to be much as the picture goes on, but there’s a nice bit near the beginning between Karloff and McLaglen, when the troop is burying the Commander and Karloff begins a prayer service. A few sentences in, after just enough prayer and blessing to make the point, McLaglen shocks Karloff by cutting him off, not out of rudeness or disrespect so much as practicality; being lost in the broiling desert there’s no time for lengthy ceremony and there’s a good chance more death and burial will come.
Wallace Ford plays a former dance hall performer, a scrappy, tightly coiled and dutiful man who’s terrified of being left alone. Any form of death is preferable for him than being the last man. He clings to McLaglen and freely tells him his fears but is just as quick to take orders and buck up when needed, and is as fast with a compliment, an insult, or an expression of friendship and warmth. It’s a nice performance from Ford that makes him a realistic bundle of nerves.
Billy Bevan is a sweet man who recalls his love for his girl and creates a comical situation when he reveals the date “his” son was born, leading the other men to count back the months and exchange awkward glances. They don’t tell Bevan what their math adds up to. Reginald Denny is so young here and has a good scene where he relaxes by the watering hole and argues with Karloff about faith. Denny recites a laundry list of beliefs that serve as his religion, ranging from the “asinine futility of this war,” to pleasures like the loveliness of women, the feel of the sea, the taste of wine, a good horse, and so on, all things that the soldiers are increasingly aware they may never experience again. The other men are played by Alan Hale, J. M. Kerrigan, Brandon Hurst, Douglas Walton and Sammy Stein.
McLaglen is very good, putting all his effort into presenting a brave face for his men. He’s hard, stern and rock solid but you can tell at all times that he cares for them, and with the slightest changes of expression he reveals much pain and frustration. It’s a minimalism and lack of melodrama that extends to the depiction of the deaths. When each man is killed, you see no blood or gore or hammy writhing and gasping. They’re either found dead, drop before our eyes or, in one instance, are sent back to camp in a state of total disfigurement that’s only suggested, and vividly so, by the other men’s horrified stares.
The Lost Patrol is a little bit creaky and it’s not THE John Ford of his essentials, but there’s much worth seeing in it, including some interesting firsts that any movie buff should appreciate: the first time Ford collaborated with writer Dudley Nichols, and the first time composer Max Steiner got an Academy Award nomination. Steiner’s score is interesting as it doesn’t blend into the background at all but is obvious and really stands out when it punctuates or signals scenes, emotions and events. There’s also the feeling of a sunstroke hallucination when you watch this, as if the whole film is reality bent and distorted by the sun (just like one of the movie’s special effects), a nightmare that you wake up from with a start, but won’t soon forget.
Watch The Lost Patrol on TCM Feb 3, and Click here to see the movie Karen chose for you to watch this month.