The Lost Patrol

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I’ve been watching John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934) again. If you don’t know the film, it’s the story of a group of British soldiers in Mesopotamia (that’s modern Iraq). They’re crossing the trackless desert on horseback when their officer gets shot by an unseen Arab. It turns out that he was the only one who knew their orders, or the direction they should be going.

The N.C.Os take charge, and the men come across an oasis, with water and a hut. At night their sentry is killed and their horses stolen. One by one the soldiers are picked off by invisible marksmen out in the desert. Tensions grow between the soldiers, and there’s a memorable performance by Boris Karloff as a religious fanatic gradually going totally mad.

It’s a terrific film, and a remake of a British version of 1927, directed by Walter Summers. I’ve not seen the British version (Are there more than a handful of early British films that one can see easily?) but I gather that it sticks closer to Philip Macdonald’s 1926 novel, Patrol, interspersing the desert scenes with flashbacks to the soldiers’ earlier lives in Britain. John Ford’s decision to restrict the drama to the desert – just the soldiers and their invisible killers, works very well cinematically, but a social dimension has been lost.

The novel is about the disintegration of a troop of soldiers, mostly because of the attitudes they bring with them from peacetime. We see the roots of the jealousies, animosities and prejudices that keep them from working together. The problems start with the officer, who wouldn’t trust his N.C.O.s with knowledge of the orders, but everyone in the group is distrustful of someone else, and they cause each other as much damage as the Arabs.

It’s a rather sour and discontented novel, casting a lot of doubt on the wartime myth of all classes working together for the common good. Ford’s film (made primarily for the American market, anyway) makes the conflicts more personal, so they don’t have quite so much resonance. It’s still a very good film, though.

Maybe it’s a film that needs a modern remake. Soldiers in Iraq whose leaders have lost their way, being murdered one by one by guerrillas – that might well strike a chord with modern audiences…

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