The Lost Patrol

Victor McLaglen goes ballistic in The Lost Patrol (dir. John Ford, 1934)

By the time Ford shot this, in 1934, he had already directed well over half of the movies he would ever direct. How's that for a mind-blower? He is, at this stage, still heavily inflected with the grammar of the silents. Max Steiner's score, for all its muted heroism (I've still got that somber desert march playing in my head), might as well be Wurlitzer accompaniment, and the acting--especially Karloff's--essentially is silent acting, with some words thrown in. What's interesting is to consider Ford's later films in this light: the stately processions, the stony generals, the staggering waltzes of heat-addled outcasts in the desert, the kinetic chaos of speeding wagon wheels and the flutter of wayward petticoats, the play of men's shadows on canyon walls and melancholy vigils from high towers.

What's also interesting is Ford's fascination with stealthy, "othered" enemies fighting on their own terrain. Here, instead of the usual Indians, the dark assassins are Arabs. We don't actually see any of them until the end, and then only from a distance, with their faces concealed by cloth. Part of the effect of this is to deprive them of their humanity, as we might expect, but it also functions as a way of asserting their dignity. Their faces are never opened to caricature. When they gun down the religious fanatic Sanders (Karloff), as he ascends a dune bearing a makeshift wooden cross, it seems pretty clear that Ford isn't primarily invested in showing what evil heathens they are. He's taking some guilty Catholic relish in the impotence of the zealot's piety against native vitality. He's past the "noble savage" idea; he's mainly into the "savage" part of it, with the exemption from civilized niceties therein granted.

No comments: