Philip Macdonald’s Patrol (1927) is one of the most effective war novels of the mid-twenties, and was a best -seller (twelve impressions before 1934, and then a Penguin paperback).
It tells the story of a British Army patrol in Mesapotamia. The officer is the only one who knows their orders, and when he is shot the sergeant has to try to lead the men through a hostile desert landscape which is full of invisible Arab snipers. One by one the men are picked off, but the patrol is destroyed less by the enemy than by their own inability to cohere as a group. They have brought with them their peacetime prejudices and resentments, and therefore fail
The novel was filmed twice, by Walter Summers (as Lost Patrol in 1929) and by John Ford (as The Lost Patrol in 1934). Summers’s film seems to be lost, but apparently it included flashbacks to the peacetime lives whose baggage the soldiers brought to war with them (as did Macdonald’s novel). Ford concentrated on events in Mesopotamia, and his film has just about everything a movie needs – ever-mounting suspense, an enemy all the more powerful because left to the viewer’s imagination, and Boris Karloff as a religious maniac.
During the Second World War, Macdonald is credited with the original story of the film Sahara (though there is also mention of the film being “based on an incident in the Soviet Photoplay The Thirteen”). Essentially this film is a re-working of the material of Patrol, but a re-working so complete as to make it the earlier story’s complete opposite.
After the fall of Tobruk, an American tank crew led by Sgt Joe Gunn (played by Humphrey Bogart) decide to head South through the desert, since that is the only direction not controlled by the Germans. They pick up various passengers, including a band of English soldiers, a Frenchman, a black soldier from the British colonial army, and an Italian prisoner.
In Patrol, disunity wrecks what should have been a cohesive group. In this film the men of strikingly different backgrounds put the needs of the group first, despite the usual desert-war complications – mechanical breakdowns, a plane attack, a sandstorm, and desperate lack of water. The morale-boosting message is very clear, but doesn’t stop this from being a very good film.
In the end, the nine men of the group learn that a German battalion of five hundred is heading their way. Rather than escape, they decide to stand in its way and do what damage they can. The earlier book and films end with a relief mission finding only the dead bodies of the men. This one ends with the rescuers meeting not just survivors of the group, but the huge band of prisoners they have taken.
The remake history also reverses Patrol’s. The earlier version was made in England first, then America. Sahara started out as an American film, but was remade as Nine Men (also 1943) a British film by Harry Watt, best known for documentaries such as Night Mail. Or at least, from the synopsis Watt’s film sounds like a remake. Maybe they just pinched the idea; I haven’t seen that film yet.
In a way, Macdonald’s two stories present the same moral – the need for cohesion in wartime. Patrol presents it negatively, Sahara positively. Macdonald was a prolific writer. The IMDB lists 62 films that use his screenplays or adapt his stories. He also wrote detective novels. I recently read the first of them, The Rasp (1921) which includes a very bloody murder, for which a prime suspect is an ex-soldier whom shell-shock has reduced to gibbering violence. It’s a puzzle-story, and quite ingenious, though I guessed the solution.