The Lost Patrol (1934)

28 09 2008

This is, at least to my knowledge, John Ford’s first full-fledged masterpiece. There are some charming touches in the earlier films of his that I’ve seen, but nothing as cohesively mindblowing as what is going on right here. It definitely helps a great deal that so many of my favorite Japanese directors seem to have been influenced a great deal by this. Of course, Ford’s influence on the Japanese is something worthy of a group of essays but it is still so fascinating (to me, at least) to see it unfold in the actual films. There’s so much to soak up here from the impressionistic photography (reminiscent of Murnau) to the straight-forward but extremely effective structure.

The film begins with the death of a commanding officer leading a British patrol unit through the Mesopotomian desert. Only he knew the way to the patrol’s destination, thus his death leaves the left of the unit lost. The group struggles to make it through the day, but they eventually stumble upon an oasis. Their joy is short-lived, however, as they find that desert’s dunes are covered with snipers in every possible direction. That doesn’t stop them from trying to escape from their oasis. Tensions come to the surface and soon, many of the survivors are driven to the brink of insanity, which leads to their demise.

I guess praising a film’s structure doesn’t make it out to be terribly exciting, but there’s definitely something special going on here. Personally, I’ve always felt a greater connection with the aesthetic and emotional parts of cinema, but there is something genuinely suspenseful about the apocalyptic nature of the narrative. Of course, Ford never imposes this idea on the audience, which only adds to how truly terrifying this film is. I suppose it kind of helps that Boris Karloff gets plenty of screentime, but again, this is a completely different type of horror. I still feel I’m short-selling the film a bit. One of Ford’s scariest touches comes in the sound design. The sound of the invisible snipers picking off the protagonist is so quick and quiet, but almost immediately alarming.

I say this a bit too often probably, but it really is the atmosphere that carries most of this film. The beautiful desert landscapes look unforgiving but beautiful and when it’s set up against the film’s aging stock, a whole new dimension of poetry is added. It’s not entirely unlike watching some of the archival footage in My Winnipeg for a whole feature length film. Sure, it might not be fair to give a film credit for something it has physically inherited over time, but it’s age seems to play such a crucial part in its tone. It probably helps that the cinematography here is just as lovely as in any of Ford’s more acclaimed efforts from the 1930s.

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