Is The Lost Patrol Still Lost?
Got in a mood last night for one of those hopeless siege pictures where men get picked off one by one, and realized I hadn’t checked out The Lost Patrol, John Ford’s 1934 actioner from Warner’s recent DVD box dedicated to his films. I’d once seen a truncated 16mm print long since come and gone, but this DVD was supposed to be a restoration of sorts, including footage not seen for decades. All of that piqued my interest, so I watched. The running time of the DVD was 71 minutes and around thirty seconds. If this was the complete version, it was still coming up a little short, according to information available in various 30’s publications. Variety clocked The Lost Patrol at 74 minutes in an April, 1934 review. The Motion Picture Almanac indicated 75 minutes in its 1935-36 annual. The movie was re-issued in 1939, from which time subsequent editions of the Almanac were amended to reflect a running time of 73 minutes. Were those first cuts made in 1939? Certainly there were revisions later. Television prints generated for syndication were down to 66 minutes. This seems to have been the length of 35mm prints prepared for the 1949 re-issue as well, when The Lost Patrol played tandem bills with a revival of Gunga Din, another film notoriously cut at the time. The great film historian William K. Everson played The Lost Patrol in January 1969 as part of his ongoing Theodore Huff Film Society program. Everson prepared notes that are still definitive references today. On this occasion, he called upon another expert, Richard Craft, to provide background on the differing versions of The Lost Patrol he'd encountered over years of Manhattan moviegoing. Kraft’s contribution is a priceless account of one fan’s ongoing dedication toward keeping the record straight on films otherwise dismissed as ephemeral. He wrote of having gone to see The Lost Patrol at the Beacon Theatre in 1940-41. He recalled it was "complete" at that time, but in light of that entry in The Motion Picture Almanac, is it possible he saw a 1939 re-issue print with those apparent initial edits?
Kraft spoke of seeing The Lost Patrol several more times throughout the forties. He was satisfied the picture was intact. The point at which he began to notice cuts was when he saw the film again in the early fifties with Gunga Din. RKO began to nibble away at it, he said, and after a handful of disappointing 42nd Street encounters, he stopped going altogether. There seemed to have been about eight minutes removed at this point, Kraft recalled, and he cited a still he’d seen depicting a fight scene between Sammy Stein (playing an ex-prizefighter named Abelson) and Alan Hale (as the troop’s cook). This highlight was in the source novel, and appears to have been filmed, but Kraft could not remember ever having seen it, not even in those 1940-41 engagements. Could this missing sequence account for that two-minute difference between the 1935-36 Motion Picture Almanac entry and later editions of same? Kraft did provide specifics as to what scenes had been excised from the 1949 re-issue prints. There was major dialogue between Victor McLaglen and Wallace Ford, as well as several incidents involving Boris Karloff’s character. Having been deprived of this footage for so many years, it’s no wonder the film’s critical reputation has suffered somewhat. I wonder if John Ford was aware of what RKO had done to The Lost Patrol. Certainly, if he ever caught the film on television, he’d have noted the loss. The director did go public with bitter complaints about the horrific butchery perpetrated by local stations when they ran old movies. Ford felt the viewing public had a right to see these intact on TV. Satellite and cable subscribers often forget what a dreadful circumstance it was between the fifties and eighties when you’d tune in to watch a favorite, only to find the mutilated husk remaining. Ford did own 16mm prints of many of his films. I understand The Lost Patrol was one of these, and he did screen it from time to time. Chances are if Ford requested his print sometime in the thirties or forties, which is more than likely, it would at least have been the more complete 1939 version. Indeed, he may not have even had an occasion to watch The Lost Patrol on television.
John Ford did happily realize a nice profit from his film. The initial fee for directing The Lost Patrol was a modest (even then) $15,000, but his contract also called for 12% of all net profits generated after twice the negative cost ($262,000) had been recovered. Domestic rentals totaled $343,000, and foreign was $240,000. Profit for the 1934 release was $84,000. Additional return on Ford’s participation came in 1939 on occasion of its first reissue. At that time, The Lost Patrol earned $61,000 domestic, with additional foreign of $13,000. Profits were $52,000. The director would, of course, receive his 12% of that action. Again in 1949, Ford saw a payday from The Lost Patrol, this time more substantial than any money he’d received thus far. Being an evergreen action show, The Lost Patrol had a ready audience in grindhouses and small-town situations where bargain rentals usually dictated booking policy. This time, the movie brought back $225,000 domestic, and $50,000 foreign. Profits added up to a hefty $135,000, from which (presumably) Ford got his share. Unfortunately, when RKO’s library went to television in 1956, all those 16mm C&C prints derived from the cutdown 1949 negative, and this version was what home audiences would endure for the next fifty years. Longer prints of The Lost Patrol became mythical and sought-after objects. There was a 16mm screening at the 2001 Cinefest in Syracuse, NY, but that was a one-time event for a comparatively small audience. As to the origin of that print, it was most likely one of those generated for the benefit of a cast or crew member, much like what Ford had. I’d guess Merian C. Cooper got one of these, and possibly Victor McLaglen. It’s remarkable how many such estate prints survived. Some of them are the only record we have of complete versions otherwise lost (The Sea Wolf of 1941 is a notorious example of this --- John Garfield’s 16mm keepsake was made for him before the film was hacked up for subsequent reissue --- now it appears to be the only one left intact). Warner’s recent DVD of The Lost Patrol is likely as complete as any version seen since 1939. With its running time at just under 72 minutes, there are probably scenes missing that were there in 1934, though we are lucky to have at least a lion’s share of this outstanding Ford classic. If you’ve hesitated picking this up, by all means grab the whole set. Warners turns in the usual exemplary job on presentation, and considering what's included here (five features in all), it's one incredible bargain.