John Fordís horror hallucination, which begins with Kipling but is positioned towards Borges (and the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction). Wandering the Mesopotamian desert after their directions die along with their leader, WWI British legionnaires find refuge in an oasis. The idyll is short-lived, one by one theyíre picked off by unseen snipers -- the "Garden of Eden" described by the outfitís Bible-thumper (Boris Karloff) turns out to be "the devilís own backyard" suggested by the traveling sensualist (Reginald Denny). Douglas Walton recalls his motherís heartbreak right before waking up with a shiv in his spine, Billy Bevan takes vigil atop a palm tree just long enough to spot the glare of the rifle pointed at his skull; the Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) survives only to illustrate both "the asinine futility of this war" and "the unspeakable joy of killing Arabs." The central horror isnít in the cast-whittling sense of abstract menace, or even in Karloffís gleeful Lon Chaneyisms (capped by the striking glimpse of the mad prophet carrying his cross into the hail of bullets). To Ford, horror is a disintegrating community, where people cling to palliatives (religion, military codes, fleshy memories, families that donít really exist) like lifesavers and the void quivers in the soldierís sun-stroked gaze. Still, Ford canít help kid the ineptitude under the charactersí imperial stiff upper lip: "I say, you chaps," gurgles the patrolís would-be rescuer after skipping right into enemy fire. Despite Max Steinerís bagpipes and bugles insisting on blessing the Queen, Ford complicates the plotís jingoism -- McLaglenís climactic machine-gun ejaculations arenít an officerís fierce triumph, but a dead manís scabrous spasms. Kurosawa absorbed the whole venture (it can be felt in the saber-graves of The Seven Samurai and in the entirety of The Men Who Tread on the Tigerís Tail), Ford himself would visualize Dennyís wistful monologue about Malayan girls as the first movement of The Long Voyage Home. Adaptation by Dudley Nichols. With Wallace Ford, J.M. Kerrigan, Alan Hale, Brandon Hurst, and Sammy Stein. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce