|Director John Ford (right) on the set with Victor McLaglen|
THE LOST PATROL B USA (73 mi) 1934 d: John Ford re-released in 1949 (66 mi)
Arabs are almost always easy targets in war movies. From as early as 1912, decades prior to the 1991 Gulf War, dozens of films presented allied agents and military forces—American, British, French, and more recently Israeli—obliterating Arabs. In the World War I drama The Lost Patrol (1934), a brave British sergeant (Victor McLaglen) guns down “sneaky Arabs, those dirty, filthy swine.”
—Jack G. Shaheen, 2003, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People
Easily overshadowed by David Lean’s epic spectacle in the desert, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), John Ford decades earlier took a stab at what in hindsight looks like a mission of pure human folly, sending a British expedition into the blazing heat of the desert during WWI on some utterly senseless cavalry campaign, where they quickly realized they were lost in the ever-expanding horizon of endless sand dunes, assigned to some unknown mission that remained a mystery to them all, finding themselves literally alone in the middle of nowhere as the baking sun was about to take the last living breath out of the men and their horses. Shot in the Yuma Desert of Arizona, with desert images reminiscent to von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), where the labyrinthian landscape is a human death trap, as so many of those that enter never find their way back out. While it’s easy to get lost in any historical account of the British colonial involvement, which is all but absent in this picture, recounting instead the misadventures of a small British patrol of a dozen men during the WWI Mesopotamia campaign (Iraq, for all practical purposes, which didn’t yet exist as a nation), the film is meant to be metaphorical instead of historical, creating a mythical universe depicting the madness of war, as one by one this small renegade group is picked off by unseen snipers lurking just over the horizon, creating a psychological panic and interior hysteria among the men, who have no defense for this kind of guerilla war, where at no time in the film is there any motivation provided for just why they are at war or coming under attack, as it appears they are acting upon their own projected hatred. Adapted by Garrett Fort from the 1927 war novel Patrol by Philip MacDonald, the film is a remake of a 1929 silent British film by Walter Summers under the same title, which happened to star Cyril McLaglen, the younger brother of Victor McLaglen, both playing the same role. Written by Dudley Nichols, his initial experience as Ford’s screenwriter, working on 16 productions together before having a falling out, where he went on to direct Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), but this is a production that excludes women, that reveals the casual conversations that take place among the men, including references to home, and the dysfunctional lives many of these men lead, viewed as outcasts, which led them to sign up for military experience, sent to British territories around the globe, recalling former campaigns, where we hear the exaggerated sagas of former experiences that have been embellished through the years. Finding themselves in the hot Mesopotamian desert, aptly described in the opening intertitles as a desert “that seemed on fire with the sun. The molten sky gloated over them. The endless desert wore the blank look of death,” surrounded by an unseen enemy that strikes like ghosts, as a shot rings out and the commanding officer falls to his death without ever revealing his regiment’s objective or their final destination. A gutty Sergeant takes command, Victor McLaglen, an ex-boxer who fought against heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, becoming the heavyweight champion of the British Army, a big burly presence whose calm demeanor helps stabilize the troops, having been through it all before, who would win the Best Actor Oscar the very next year for his role in Ford’s The Informer (1935), working together in a dozen pictures, perhaps the most recognizable John Ford actor after John Wayne.
A reflection of the British class system, where WWI was an attempt to protect a dying aristocracy, the remaining soldiers show little remorse for their fallen officer, coming from a distinctly different social class than the rank and file. As the film was released during the Depression, largely viewed as a disaster caused by the super wealthy inflicting their incompetency upon the poor, giving the film an allegorical message about the rich refusing to share the wealth with the common man. Lean and concise, perhaps a predecessor to films like Delmar Daves’ 3:10 TO YUMA (1957), André de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw (1959), Robert Aldrich’s FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965), John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), or Ridley Scott’s outer space sci-fi saga Alien (1979), the oppressive desert heat leaves the men weakened and exhausted, with little water left to share, while their horses are under the same strain, with some falling by the wayside. By some miracle, they fall upon an oasis, providing water and fig trees, literally a lifesaver in what is otherwise a death march into a pit of Hell. While the men are euphoric, recovering quickly, Reginald Denny is Brown, an experienced veteran who boasts of adventures in faraway places, like the Malayan Islands, which has a casual air of racism when they mention the skin color of the girls, as if that’s tainted goods, yet it makes no difference to men who are so far away from home. A small group of isolated men under stress speaking that all-too familiar Irish brogue, where the stories resemble the talk along the ship decks in The Long Voyage Home (1940), among many Ford films built around a distant journey, though often the object of the journey is never attained, like a mythical quest for the Golden Fleece, or immortality. A young inexperienced soldier Pearson (Douglas Walton) talks about living with his mother at home, but having no future, so he signed up for military service hoping to gain some experience, driven by heavily romanticized Kipling-inspired dreams of glory that preached the benefits of British imperialism, but by morning he’s shot dead by a sniper, while all their horses were also stolen right out from underneath them, leaving them stranded out in the open like sitting ducks. Boris Karloff is Sanders, a Bible-toting religious fanatic who initially claims the oasis is a Garden of Eden (though clearly the land is Islamic territory), but he never joins in with the others, always keeping to himself, annoyed that his attempts at conversion fail, viewing the others as heathens and scoundrels for failing to follow the Word of the Lord, perhaps viewing this military venture into the land of infidels as a religious crusade. He grows more maniacal as the men are picked off one by one, where the mystifying tone of the film is charged by the eerie silence that surrounds them, where no movement is ever seen, with the sand dunes concealing the face of the enemy. Like Zurlini’s THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS (1976), the men are haunted by a lurking dread of an impending sense of doom, exacerbated by the fear of the unknown, psychologically projecting their own fears into the actions of the enemy, which eats at the inner core of these soldiers who live in a world abandoned by time. Certainly a study of questionable leadership, the Sergeant is perplexed right from the outset at never being told the mission, allowing behavior that has disastrous consequences, like allowing the most inexperienced soldier sentry duty the first night, or allowing another to climb the highest tree, where he’s immediately picked off, while others panic and run out into the open desert, as if blinded by temporary insanity, but it costs them their lives, with a militaristic score by Max Steiner heightening the emotional impact, his first (out of 24!) Oscar nominated score.
This film is shrouded in a Macbethian gloom of paranoid delusion, countering the imperialist myth that war is glorious, growing progressively dark as the body count grows, becoming a staunchly anti-war fable. The fact that it all takes place in such an artificialized environment that couldn’t be more remotely isolated, stuck in a state of paralysis, not knowing where they are or how they got there, or even where they’re going, giving this a staged theater of the absurd appearance with characters trapped in a modernist No Exit situation, allowing Sanders in particular to go off on the deep end, losing himself in his zealous fanaticism, shouting at one point, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” Another internal conflict is existentialism against religious faith, with a grandstanding Boris Karloff pouring out the over-the-top melodrama as he expounds upon religious conviction, yet his obsession with holding the Bible near and dear to him in times of trouble feels as much like a crutch as the escapist, immoral tales told by ordinary men, whose drinking exploits and carnal desires are called upon in times of stress, if only to help alleviate the fear that engulfs them. A primal tale of survival against implacable forces, a complete breakdown of moral order, growing ever more isolated and alone in their internalized sense of desperation, veering towards a horror film. As the men bicker among themselves, their group dwindles in dramatic fashion, becoming panicked, held together by a primal desire to kill as many Arabs as possible, aligned in their mad desire for revenge, but what the men lack is faith in one another and faith in their mission, instead feeling stranded, as if left on a deserted island, where the only surety is that no one will be coming to rescue them, perfectly capturing a mood of bleak fatalism. By the way, the solemn final image was borrowed by Akira Kurosawa for the conclusion of SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Even this early in Ford’s career, showing progressive moral values, the racial element is an unmistakable component to his filmmaking, where Arabs are a stand-in for what will become the Indians, as a non-white enemy is perpetually demonized, viewed as less than human, with the director expressing no interest in exploring or expounding upon their character, yet they are continually dehumanized as evil. This vein of bigotry exists throughout his legendary career, and this film is no different. In Hollywood, the celluloid mythology dominates the culture, becoming the predominate train of thought, a stand-in for truth that literally infects generation after generation. In less than a decade, 100,000 Japanese-Americans would be sent to internment camps, American blacks would march off to war but were denied basic civil rights back here at home, while hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan were still burning homes and organizing lynchings, while also resorting to murder. Earlier in history, American Indians were slaughtered and displaced. Certainly part of the problem is the Hollywood depiction, as the mythology of Arabs and Indians are still rooted in evil, where this kind of racist hysteria becomes the norm. These all-pervasive stereotypes have more of an effect on viewers today than they did during the Depression, for instance, when this film was released, as the motion picture industry has extended their influence into mainstream culture. Even without revealing the face of the enemy, it’s hard not to view Arabs as threatening after watching this film. Perhaps more importantly, the television and motion picture industry of today perpetuates the same threat, as Arab-Americans are nearly entirely non-existent except when depicted as villains, where they are routinely stereotyped as “terrorists.”
The film was reportedly a favorite of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz in his youth, which may be the reason Snoopy’s cousin Spike lives in the desert.