Lost Patrol, The (1934): John Ford’s Oscar-Nominated WWI Tale, Starring Victor McLaglen

Previously made into a movie in 1929, Philip MacDonald’s novel “Patrol” was filmed again by director John Ford as “The Lost Patrol” in 1934.  Set in WWI, the tale was adapted t the screen by Garrett Fort, Philip MacDonald, Dudley Nichols.

The Lost Patrol
Lost patrol.jpeg

Original theatrical poster

The tale stars Victor McLaglen as The Sergeant, a soldier in charge of a British cavalry regiment, stranded in the Mesopotamian desert.

The Sergeant hasn’t asked for the new responsibilities and duties, but after the commanding officer is killed by Arab sniper, he has to take over. Sadly, one by one, the men are picked off as they desperately fend off the enemy, waiting for reinforcements to arrive.

The most spectacular death scene belongs to Boris Karloff, better known for his horror movies, playing a religious zealot named Sanders, who goes insane and begins marching towards the Arabs while bearing a makeshift cross.

Max Steiner’s Oscar nominated musical theme for this movie would be later refashioned for his score for “Casablanca.”

Ford’s mastery of the visuals, here in stylized black and white, and in integrating the landscape into the narrative, are already evident here.

Ford would reteam with Victor McLaglen the following year in the superb Oscar-winning political drama, “The Informer.”

“The Lost Patrol” was remade as a western, “Bad Lands,” in 1939.

The originally running time was 74 minutes, but the film was recut into 69-minute.

Made on a small budget, the movie was moderately successful at the box-office.

MacDonald’s story and the incident depicted in the 1936 Soviet film The Thirteen (set the Central Asia desert during the Basmachi rebellion) inspired the 1943 film Sahara, featuring Humphrey Bogart. Sahara was remade In 1995, featuring James Belushi, and as a Western, Last of the Comanches, in 1953.

Detailed Plot
During World War I, the young lieutenant in charge of a small British mounted patrol in the empty Mesopotamian desert is shot and killed by an unseen sniper. This leaves the sergeant at a loss, since he had not been told what their mission is and has no idea where they are. Riding north in the hope of rejoining their brigade, the eleven remaining men reach a deserted oasis where they find water, edible dates, and shelter.

At night, one of the sentries is killed, the other seriously wounded, and their horses stolen, leaving them stranded. They bury the dead man and put his sword at the head of his grave. One by one, the remaining men are picked off by the unseen assailants.

In desperation, the sergeant sends two men chosen by lot on foot for help, but they are caught and their mutilated bodies returned. One man, Abelson, suffering from heat exhaustion, sees a mirage and wanders into deadly rifle fire. The pilot of a British biplane spots the survivors, but nonchalantly lands nearby and despite frantic warnings is killed. After dark, the sergeant takes the machine gun from the aircraft and then sets the plane on fire as a signal to any British troops. Sanders, a religious fanatic, goes mad and walks into deadly fire.

In the end only the sergeant is left and, thinking he too is dead, the Arabs who have besieged the oasis advance on foot. Using the machine gun from the aircraft, the sergeant kills them all. A British patrol rides up and the officer asks the sergeant about his men.  The sergeant then looks toward their graves, six swords gleaming in the sun.

Oscar Nominations: 1
Score: Max Steiner

Oscar Context:

The Oscar winner was “One Night of Love.”


Victor McLaglen as The Sergeant
Boris Karloff as Sanders
Wallace Ford as Morelli
Reginald Denny as George Brown
J. M. Kerrigan as Quincannon
Billy Bevan as Herbert Hale
Alan Hale as Matlow Cook
Brandon Hurst as Corporal Bell
Douglas Walton as Pearson
Sammy Stein as Abelson
Howard Wilson as Aviator
Paul Hanson as Jock MacKay

Directed by John Ford
Produced by Merian C. Cooper, Cliff Reid, John Ford
Written by Garrett Fort, Philip MacDonald, Dudley Nichols
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Harold Wenstrom
Edited by Paul Weatherwax
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date: February 16, 1934
Running time: 73 minutes