Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Lost Patrol (Boris Karloff Blogathon)

The Boris Karloff Blogathon has been running all week over at the superb Frankensteinia blog captained by Montréal cartoon artist and Frankenstein expert Pierre Fournier. I haven't participated in one of these internet-wide flurries of topic-focused writing in quite a while, but I've had great fun participating in them in the past, and even hosted one or two of them myself. I'm essentially too late to join the Karloff party, but the event has at least inspired me to "rescue" a three-and-a-half year old piece I wrote for the now defunct Cinemarati site. That site is now long gone, but individual pieces are still housed at a.k.a. the wayback machine. Though three and a half years seems like a lot, especially in internet time, I feel like this particular piece, on John Ford's the Lost Patrol holds up despite a few sentences with references to 2006 activities (I tinkered a bit with the last paragraph but otherwise left the piece unedited).

The Lost Patrol doesn't feature Karloff in a starring role, but he plays a very memorable part in the ensemble. I saw the film when the Balboa Theatre ran a three-week series entitled "As Sure As My Name Is Boris Karloff" (be sure to click that link for some great Karloff interview excerpts). It played on a double-bill with the Mask of Fu Manchu and Sara Karloff was on hand to speak about the films and show photographs of her father on Hollywood sets. This terrific series was unfortunately one of the last before the Balboa reverted from a repertory venue to a second-run and occasionally first-run theatre. (Though they still have the odd special event, like Thrillville's presentation of Beach Blanket Bingo next Valentine's Day, and I'm very excited to visit the theatre for this Friday's release of the newest Frederick Wiseman documentary La Danse: the Paris Opera Ballet.)

I also wrote about the Karloff films programmed in this post here at Hell On Frisco Bay. Let us now journey back in time to June 9, 2006, when I originally posted the following review of the Lost Patrol...

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My neighborhood theatre is running a huge Boris Karloff retrospective right now, and the other night I saw a rare print of this early John Ford picture, his first film made for RKO a year before he made the film for which he'd win his first Oscar, The Informer I haven't seen very much of Ford's 1930s work yet, but The Lost Patrol fits right in with what I expect from one of his films from the 40s or 50s. It's not simply another action film; indeed there's long stretches without much real action at all. What it does contain is Ford's common theme of men removed from their homes, trying to survive and find a purpose to their lives. Varied class and ethnic backgrounds, conflicting philosophies, and a Ford-style critique of the problems of the military are also quite evident.

The film is structured something like a modern-day slasher movie. No time is wasted on the set-up: a group of soldiers in the Mesopotamian desert lose their commanding officer to a sniper's rifle and find themselves lost, without a known mission or a convenient way out of their predicament. After a hasty burial in the sand, sturdy Victor McLaglen, a ubiquitous Ford presence, leads the patrol to an abandoned oasis, where the men bicker amongst themselves as they get picked off by their unseen adversaries one by one. Among the ranks are a poetry-minded enlistee played by Reginald Denny, and most memorably, Karloff as the one man in the group who never lacks for a purpose: he is a religious extremist who remembers Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) as the original site of the Garden of Eden and wants to save the souls of his fellow soldiers, though they're having none of it. The wildly gesticulating fanaticism of Karloff's character at first seems out of place in Ford's universe. He's not just an eccentric like Hank Worden's Mose Harper in The Searchers, but an increasingly threatening presence, imbued with the echoes of his usual boogeyman characters. As the intensity of his zealotry rises by orders of magnitude while his dwindling compatriots become ever more hopeless and "lost", Karloff seems less and less like a character out of another movie, and more like a foreshadowing of the insanity lying in wait for each soldier just over the next dune. The end of the film feels almost like a feverish hallucination for the last remaining soldier, who is reduced to an almost parodically macho pose.

The theatre operator mentioned the particular topicality of the film when introducing it, and I have to agree. Certainly any good film can springboard a myriad of interpretations, but in 2006 [and, sad to say, 2009] a dominant one surely is to see the Lost Patrol as an eerie premonition of this country's current situation in Iraq. The setting, the matter-of-fact hopelessness of the soldiers' situation, the religious element to the conflict, and many other little surprises can't help but reinforce the connection. And anyone with a DVD player can take a look for themselves, as the film was just this week released for the first time on home video along with four other Ford films: the Informer, Mary of Scotland, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn.


  1. I remember that Boris Karloff retrospective. In fact, I recall seeing The Mask of Fu Manchu and The Lost Patrol double feature. The Balboa, in its incarnation as a rep house, was my favorite theater of all time. It seems a lot longer than 3.5 years since the Balboa was a rep house...good memories.

    There were two films from that series that I missed and still regret - Targets (directed by Bogdanovich) and The Wurdalak (directed by Mario Bava).

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dan. I was a big Balboa fan myself, especially since I was (and am) a Richmond District resident. I tried to go as often as I could, and would still if they had programs I was really interested in. I am truly thrilled that the Wiseman documentary is coming there this week.

    I caught the Wurdalak in that series; in fact they screened the entire portmentau film which contains it (Black Sabbath, I recall), making for a terrific triple-feature with the Walking Dead and the Body Snatcher. I also regretted missing Targets, but was pleased to catch up with it at the Castro's Bogdanovich tribute a couple years later.