Poor Boris Karloff
I had never seen The Lost Patrol until the other day, when I was (belatedly) preparing for The John Ford Blogathon. Filmed in the Sonoran Desert in Imperial County, California, every long shot of this wartime drama is spectacular -- and very John Ford: a taut human conflict set against a stark, uncompromising landscape.
The picture opens with a small patrol of British soldiers riding on horseback in the Mesopotamian desert during World War I. Their new lieutenant is shot and killed by an unseen Arab sniper pretty much immediately, but as he is new, no one is particularly torn up about it until they realize that he died before telling them what their orders were or how to meet up with their brigade. The sergeant (Ford favorite, Victor McLaglen) is a veteran campaigner who quickly takes charge of the situation and leads his men northward in the hopes that they will find their larger outfit.
It's hot. It's sandy. They're lost. They know it. There are some green recruits in the company who aren't used to schlepping around foreign climates in full uniform. In spite of it all, the men are kind to each other and to the horses. There is a bit of a wet blanket in the form of a bible thumping, sad-faced man (Boris Karloff, the saddest face of all), who disapproves of the swearing and talk about drink and girls in various ports.
Max Steiner's score does rather pound these points home: the sand, the heat, the camaraderie, the disapproval, we get it, we get it. I know he was nominated for an Academy Award for this picture and everything, but if it were up to me, I'd have turned the volume down a bit in some sequences. As Bette Davis said famously during the making of Dark Victory, when her character was heading upstairs to die, "Either I'm going to climb those stairs or Max Steiner is going to climb those stairs, but I'll be god-damned if Max Steiner and I are going to climb those stairs together!" Truer words...
As luck would have it, the troop stumbles upon an oasis with date palms, fresh water, and a bit of shelter for the night. The plan is to head northward in the morning, but when they awaken, they find one sentry dead, the other mortally wounded, and all the horses gone.
The rest of the film is pretty much a chronicle of how to die in the desert. At different times, different men say "I see something moving!" and head off into the dunes only to be shot and killed by a sniper. Two guys, one of whom is Alan Hale, are sent to try to find help, only to be returned, mutilated, on two of the stolen horses. One of 'em gets shot out of a date palm; another goes crazy from the heat; and Boris Karloff goes completely off his rocker, dresses himself up as a Babylonian with a cross for a staff and wanders into the desert and is, of course, cut down by enemy fire.
Oh yeah, an allied biplane flies over, giving the survivors a brief moment of hope, only to be shot and killed once he lands the plane, in spite of the remaining soldiers waving him back. Alas, eventually only the sergeant is left alive, and we finally see the enemy descending on him in the oasis. There are only a handful of Arabs, as he suspected all along, and he manages to cut them down as they approach.
It's a stark picture with breathtaking desert sequences. The acting is fine, if a little melodramatic, but whatever, it's 1934 and they're all on location in the Algodones Dunes. The pace is fast and engaging. If you haven't had a chance to see The Lost Patrol, it is available streaming on Vudu for a small rental fee, or available on DVD. I recommend it for trademark John Ford and a sturdy ensemble cast.