“The Unspeakable Pleasure of Killing Arabs”: or, John Ford gets lost in Iraq

by zunguzungu

The Lost Patrol; an early John Ford movie set in “Mesopotamia” during WWI. After The Prisoner of Shark Island, I figured this one can’t miss, right?

As it turns out, the movie is sort of like “Waiting for Godot” in the desert, except instead of existential angst, its more like the actors were waiting for the script to arrive and amused themselves by playing a game called “act out Kiplingesque scenes that Kipling would have chewed off his own knuckles rather than put to paper” and then they edited it into a movie and called it a day. The plot, such as it is, consists of an unlovable bunch of losers marching up to an oasis in the Mesopotamian desert, apparently fresh from combat with Ottoman Arabs during WWI, where they spend the rest of the movie getting picked off one by one in progressively stupider ways. You could say John Ford phoned it in, except it would be better said that he smoke-signaled it in. Or semaphored it in on a moonless midnight with two blind semaphore operators waving black flags a hundred miles apart and facing in opposite directions. Or something like that.

So, to recap: it’s a truly piss-poor movie, and the fact that it’s called The Lost Patrol isn‘t even nicely ironic enough to save it, nor is it even interesting enough for it’s blatant racism to be more than run of the mill. The band of soldiers lost in the desert are so stupid, they don’t really need Arabs to kill them; you could wipe out the whole lot of them if you left them unattended for five minutes in a room with a pair of rusty scissors. They’d find a way. The Arabs don’t even show up until the last scene, but what little buildup there just gets frittered away when they prove to be just as stupid and incompetent as everyone else involved with this movie.

I mean, seriously, what is with this movie? It is so bad. The night-time scenes aren’t just obviously filmed in sunlight; there are actually characters that refer to the darkness while the shadows of clouds are literally passing over them. And its made all the worse by a harp-heavy score that occasionally turns into jaunty trumpets, sort of independently of (and in weirdly inappropriate counterpoint to) whatever is going on in the film itself. This move takes badness to a level of aesthetic achievement, and not in a good way. It was interesting to see Boris Karloff get cast as “creepy religious nut job” and he is frighteningly bad. But, again, not in a good way.