The Lost Patrol

This is the third film that I have reviewed from Odeon Entertainment’s Hollywood Studio Collection label and, as with both The Fallen Sparrow (1943), and Sealed Cargo (1951), the result is… intriguing. Predating better-known John Ford titles such as Rio Grande (1950), The Young Mr Lincoln (1939), and Stagecoach (1939), The Lost Patrol is the story of a group of the First World War’s British soldiers on a long-rage patrol through the Mesopotamian desert.

When their officer is shot dead by an unseen assailant, the group is left without a leader and without any idea as to where they are or what their mission is supposed to be. After wandering the desert in the hope of encountering a river, the group stumbles across an oasis and some buildings where they repair for the night.

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However, when they attempt to leave the oasis the following day, they discover that the same group of unseen assailants who killed their officer now surrounds them. Assailants eager to gun down anyone who steps foot outside of the oasis… Trapped far from home and unable to move, the soldier turn their collective gaze inwards as they await a rescue party that may never come.

There is no denying the power of the ideas behind The Lost Patrol. Much like Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Zulu (1964), and Rio Bravo (1958), The Lost Patrol is ostensibly a siege movie about a group (here, of heroic soldiers) holding out against a superior force. However, by ensuring that we do not actually see the assailants until the very end of the film, Ford forces our attention away from the physical conflict and towards the psychological tensions within the group. Functioning very much as a huis clos, The Lost Patrol is not so much about surviving an attack as it is about surviving the hell of other people.

Other people who go on about beer-drinking competitions while you are dying of thirst… Other people who talk about their loved ones at home while you are stuck in the middle of the desert… Other people who boast about their worldliness and lack of faith while you are praying for deliverance… Other people who seem hell-bent on driving you completely out of your mind… The darkness and insularity of the film’s tone and subject matter clash beautifully with its vast and sun-drenched desert vistas while the unseen but ever-present assailants seem to provide exactly the sort of materials required to build some grand allegory about man’s attempts to confront his own mortality. However, for all of its great ideas and boundless potential, The Lost Patrol somehow manages to be something of a disappointment.

Without action sequences or romantic subplots, the film does not merely shift our attention to the characters; it deprives us of anything else to engage with. This is a film without eye-catching set-pieces, without memorable banter and without comic distractions. It is nothing but people going quietly mad in the desert, but by choosing to rely solely upon its characters and their relationships to carry the film, the basic lack of humanity and structure in Dudley Nichols’ script is made only too plain.

The problem is one of movement; by rushing the introduction of its characters, the film fails to provide them with a clear psychological baseline and, as a result, one struggles to see any of them change over time. People stand up, delivery oddly stilted speeches about their loved ones back home, and then get shot. And because we never got a firm idea of who these characters were before they went mad, we never get the impression that they are progressing along character arcs. This is a film about the descent into madness but you never feel the descent.

There is no feeling of psychological change. No sensation of motion. Of course, while the script was clearly lacking, an experienced cast of actors might have been able to rescue the plot by injecting some nuance into their delivery of the lines. Sadly, this never comes to pass. The cast is an absolute barnyard of accents and styles crudely adorned by a withered Boris Karloff in full-on panto mode.

However, while I may complain about Nichols’ script and Ford’s failure to coax decent performances from any of his actors, I feel that the real culprit here is The Lost Patrol’s bizarrely truncated running time. Clocking in at only a shade over an hour, there simply is not enough time to establish such a large cast of characters, let alone to allow each of them the space to descend into madness with anything approaching psychological verisimilitude. Had The Lost Patrol been a bit longer or had it had a smaller cast of characters then one might well imagine Ford turning all of those wonderful ideas into a mean psychological thriller but, without enough time, without a decent script, and without any reliable actors, the result is a rare failure for one of the great American filmmakers of the mid-20th century.

When I said at the beginning of this review that this DVD was a surprise, I was not exaggerating. The Hollywood Studio Collection seems to be trying to position itself so as to fill in the void left by the terrestrial TV channels’ decision to stop broadcasting old black and white films in the afternoons. Much beloved by British cinephiles, the afternoon black and white films were always a source of mixed pleasures and constant surprise. Many times, I found myself watching some terrible old film only for the memories of that film to stay with me for years. The films being released by The Hollywood Studio Collection are very much films in that tradition, they are not necessarily the best films in the world, or completely successful in what they set out to do, but they are invariably interesting, invariably different and invariably memorable.

Right… so who is up for remaking this with some decent actors and a decent script? A bunch of marines going mad on an Afghan hillside while unseen Taliban pick them off at their leisure! Restrepo meets Heart Of Darkness. Now there’s an idea for a film.