26 March 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Not as good as John Ford's remake
Five years before Victor McLaglen starred in John Ford's Hollywood film 'The Lost Patrol', his younger brother Cyril starred in a low-budget British-made film of the same story. This little-known version (with a cast who were largely obscure even in Britain) isn't nearly so good as Ford's remake, but it differs from that version in some interesting ways, and is worth viewing on its own merits.
This silent film reminds me of 'The Flight of the Phoenix'. Both depict the struggle to survive among men in the desert during wartime, who get picked off one by one. More significantly, both 'Lost Patrol' (this version) and 'Flight of the Phoenix' are all-male stories that still manage to put some female characters on screen (for the sake of the box office) through dramatic devices. In 'Flight of the Phoenix', we hear a woman's voice singing on the radio, and one of the stranded men hallucinates a beautiful Arabian dancing girl (played by the very non-Arabian Barrie Chase).
'Lost Patrol' recycles a device that was used much more effectively the previous year in 'Legion of the Condemned'. Through flashback, we see the previous history of each member of this army patrol. One man was a clerk who got conscripted into the army, another was a drayman, one more was a farmer. One was a variety artiste, yet another a painter. The most interesting of the lot is Sanders, a former evangelist. Only the nameless Sergeant, played by McLaglen, is a career soldier. It is in these flashback sequences that we see the only women who appear on screen in this movie. (John Ford's remake had no women at all.) Unfortunately, the flashbacks are poorly paced, and add nothing to the structure of this film beyond padding its running time. They attempt to provide backstory for each member of the patrol ... but it's clear that these men are doomed, so we have difficulty caring about who they were before they arrived in this forsaken place.
I have been told that this silent film is more faithful to the original novel ('Patrol' by Philip MacDonald) than Ford's remake was. Not having read it, I can't judge. At all events, the plot and premise of this 'pre-make' are nearly identical to the Victor McLaglen version. During the Great War, a patrol of eleven men go into the Mesopotamian desert with only minimal supplies. For some implausible reason, the commanding officer (Lieutenant Hawkins) is the only one who knows the patrol's mission and destination. When Arab snipers pick him off, the remaining men are stranded in the middle of nowhere ... with no notion of where they're supposed to go, nor where to find supplies. And they haven't much ammunition. Nor a compass. Naturally, there's some dialogue (in the silent-film intertitles) about how they should save one bullet apiece for themselves...
More from blind luck than skill, the patrol manage to find an oasis. Realising that they've a better chance of surviving if they stay here and wait to be rescued than if they press on blindly, they make camp. Of course, the snipers pick them off one by one...
Cyril McLaglen is good in the lead role, as the sergeant who is forced to take command. It's obvious why McLaglen never had a major film career: he looked (and very likely sounded) too much like his brother Victor. I've never seen a photograph of the two brothers side by side, but it appears that Cyril was even taller than Victor. In 'Lost Patrol', there's a good performance by Sam Wilkinson, as the god-botherer who goes insane from the strain and develops religious mania. Wilkinson is better here than Boris Karloff was, playing the same role in the remake. (I'm a Karloff fan, but 'The Lost Patrol' was not his finest hour.)
In John Ford's remake, Lieutenant Hawkins -- the only one who knows the unit's mission -- is killed straight away after the opening credits. In this silent version, the character actually has some screen time (and some expository dialogue) before catching a packet. Hawkins is played here (apparently in his only screen role) by Arthur Woods, who acquits himself well during his brief screen time. The casting of Woods in this role is extremely ironic. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Woods distinguished himself as a brilliant director with a promising career ahead of him. I consider his 'They Drive by Night' one of the greatest films ever made, solidly in the Hitchcock genre yet easily the equal of anything by Hitchcock ... and that's high praise indeed. Unfortunately, Woods was killed in combat during WW2, much as Lt. Hawkins (in the previous war) gets killed in this film.
This silent version of 'Lost Patrol' is not as good as Ford's, but is an interesting variation. Unfortunately, it's less convincing than the remake. The 'oasis' in the Mesopotamian desert looks like someone dug a hole in the Sussex Downs and then poured water into it. Also, there are no insects at the oasis ... an absence which made this film less believable for me than it could have been. I'll rate 'Lost Patrol' 6 points out of 10.