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, 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) but 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 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.