Filmsite Movie Review
Lost Horizon (1937)
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Lost Horizon (1937) is a timeless, widely-acclaimed classic - a romantic fantasy and science-fiction adventure film, produced and directed by Frank Capra for Columbia Pictures. The film was faithfully adapted by screenwriter Robert Riskin from James Hilton's best-selling 1933 novel of the same name. The story was inspired by real-life mountaineer George Leigh-Mallory, who was lost during a fatal climb of Mount Everest in 1924.

Earlier in the decade, Capra had swept the Oscars with It Happened One Night (1934) starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, and also directed the popular Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) with Gary Cooper, so he was able to command bigger budgets with the studio. The expensive and ambitious film, due to its elaborate sets of Shangri-La (on Columbia's Burbank ranch) and extended shooting schedule, was shot on a extravagant budget of $2.5 million. It was advertised as the "Mightiest of All Motion Pictures."

Coming after the disillusionment of the 'Great War,' at the end of the long Depression and during a time of European Fascism and the Spanish Civil War, the escapist, life-affirming (and somewhat naive) film had an enormous impact on viewers - especially its depiction of a remote place where financial worries and wars were non-existent. The film shares similarities with RKO's She (1935), from H. Rider Haggard's adventure tale about another lost land.

As with many films during the preview and editing stages, the studio drastically edited Capra's over-long, leisurely-paced production after screening it in Santa Barbara. When originally released in 1937, the film had a running time of 132 minutes. Over the years, nearly 25 minutes were removed, and various shortened versions of the film were reissued in re-releases. In the meantime, any remaining copies of the full-length version deteriorated. [Note: Much of the film was restored in the 1970s-80s by putting blown-up portions of a 16mm print into deleted sections, and substituting approximately seven minutes of missing footage with production stills on top of the full 132 minute soundtrack.] The film was both a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, and has often been criticized as too talky, dull and banal.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two Oscars: Best Interior Decoration (Stephen Goosson) and Best Film Editing (Gene Havlick and Gene Milford). Its other nominations included: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (H. B. Warner), Best Sound Recording (John Livadary), Best Assistant Director (C. C. Coleman, Jr.) - a category that was discontinued after this year, and Best Score (Dimitri Tiomkin).

The film was remade as a colorful, big-budget musical - Lost Horizon (1973), with Charles Boyer as the High Lama, Peter Finch as Robert Conway, John Gielgud as Chang, Olivia Hussey as Maria, and Michael York as George Conway, with music by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Plot Synopsis

After the credits (with curving Chinese-style letters), the film opens with title cards from the pages of an opened book, inquiring about the utopian, idyllic mythical and legendary land of Shangri-La in the Himalayan mountains:

In these days of wars and rumors of wars - - haven't you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?
(The page turns)
Of course you have.
So has every man since Time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia - - Sometimes the Fountain of Youth - - Sometimes merely "that little chicken farm."
(The page turns)
One man had such a dream and saw it come true. He was Robert Conway - - England's "Man of the East" - - soldier, diplomat, public hero - -
(The page turns)
Our story starts in the war-torn Chinese city of Baskul, where Robert Conway has been sent to evacuate ninety white people before they are butchered in a local revolution.
(The page turns)
Baskul - - the night of March 10, 1935.

Courageous British diplomat (Foreign Secretary-designate), Far Eastern writer and idealistic dreamer Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is caught in the burning city of Baskul, in 1935 war-torn China during the Japanese invasion. He aids the evacuation of western refugees from the Chinese revolution to escape an hysterical mob. The motley group of Europeans who take the last DC-2 passenger plane out of the flaming airport with the suave adventurer Conway include:

  • Conway's impulsive younger brother George (John Howard)
  • a crooked fugitive swindler Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell)
  • a prissy, buffoonish, fossil-hunting, paleontologist expert Alexander P. Lovett (or "Lovey") (Edward Everett Horton)
  • a cynical and embittered prostitute Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell) who is slowly dying of consumption (tuberculosis)

After escaping from the hysterical mob and journeying away from the chaos, the group learns that the plane appears to be hijacked (or shanghaied), flown not by a European but by a Mongolian pilot (with a pistol), and they're flying in the wrong direction, not East toward Shanghai and civilization, but West toward the mountainous Himalayas in Tibet.

When the plane runs out of fuel, it crashes into the deep snow of the mountains, and the pilot is killed. It appears that all is lost when a hiking caravan appears, led by a soft-spoken, elderly Chinese man named Chang (H. B. Warner). Rescued and provided with warm clothing (that "materialize so conveniently"), they join his strange caravan and are led for many miles, tethered on a rope, through the rough and treacherous snow-covered terrain. They eventually reach a small pass, and suddenly find themselves in heaven - of sorts. Through the portal (a mirage?), they come upon a beautiful, warm, snowless, sunny fertile land, called 'the Valley of the Blue Moon.' They arrive at the enchanted, uncharted Himalayan mountain paradise of Shangri-La, a community with magnificent marble structures, verdant gardens, terraces, fountains and pools making up the Lamasery - a Tibetan monastery. The weary travelers are given luxurious rooms ("You couldn't do better at the Ritz"), a dinner meal, and every courtesy by the peaceful native peoples.

According to the benevolent and dignified Chang, there is no wireless (because of the mountains) and "no means of communication with the outside world." Sensing that they are virtually prisoners, John is anxious to get back to civilization and home, when Chang poses an interesting question:

John: We better make arrangements to get some porters immediately. Some means to get us back to civilization.
Chang: Are you so certain you are away from it?
John: As far away as I ever want to be.

In contrast to his anxious brother, Robert is pleasantly relaxed: "I think I'm going to like it here," but they both wonder for what reason they were "deliberately" brought there.

In this utopian land of perfect peace, love, beauty and harmony, everyone follows the principle of 'moderation' and avoids excesses of any kind, according to Chang:

To put it simply, I should say that our general belief was in moderation. We preach the virtue of avoiding excesses of every kind, even including excess of virtue itself...We find in the valley it makes for greater happiness among the natives. We rule with moderate strictness and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. As a result, our people are moderately honest, moderately chaste, and somewhat more than moderately happy.

In the spiritual refuge, there are no soldiers or police, because there is no war, and there are no criminals because there is no crime or greed ("There can be no crime where there is a sufficiency of everything"). Only very rarely are there disputes over women ("It would not be considered good manners to take a woman that another man wanted"). In sum, "a little courtesy all around helps to smooth out the most complicated problems." Various cultural treasures, "books, instruments, sculpture" were brought into the mountain retreat by porters, over a period of centuries. In Shangri-La, there is no money in the traditional sense ("We do not buy or sell or seek personal fortunes because, well, there is no uncertain future here for which to accumulate it"). Conway suspects a "shrewd, guiding intelligence somewhere" who has somehow orchestrated the very "simple and naive" life of the valley.

The community was formed in 1713 by a Belgian priest named Father Perrault ("the first European to find this place and a very great man, indeed"). According to Chang, he built Shangri-La, taught the natives, and began the collection of art.

In fact, Shangri-La is Father Perrault.

He stumbled into the valley half-frozen to death, and amputated his frost-bitten leg by himself when he found there were no doctors. Later, after he learned the local language, the natives told him that he could have saved his leg ("it would have healed without amputation"). Because there is no disease, "a perfect body in perfect health was the rule here." After he and the natives had finished building Shangri-La, he was 108 years old and still very active. People do not grow old quickly, but remain in an extended state of healthy youthfulness, because of the stress-less life: "It is quite common here to live to a very ripe old age, climate, diet, and mountain water you might say, but we like to believe it is the absence of struggle in the way we live." [Later, Chang opines: "Age is a limit we impose upon ourselves."]

Robert pursues, on horseback (one black, one white), the young, radiant and beautiful Sondra (Jane Wyatt in her film debut) he had seen playing a piano. A deer and a waterfall appear in the pastoral scene in which he discovers her skinny-dipping in a mountain pool. With dripping, curly hair, she is warned of his presence by a chattering squirrel, and dives into the water to hide her nudity. He constructs a fanciful scarecrow from her clothing while she gleefully ducks behind giant water lilies.

The visitors learn that they cannot easily leave the escapist paradise. George, who is distraught about being 'a prisoner,' threatens Chang and wields a gun:

You may not know it, but you're all prisoners here who were literally kidnapped and brought here and nobody knows why. Well, I'm not content to be a prisoner. I'm going to find out when we're going to get out of this place. I'll make that Chinese talk if it's the last thing I do.

Robert Conway coerces Chang to tell him why the group was summoned there:

It's time we were told what it's all about. We want to know why we were kidnapped, why we're being kept here, but most important of all, do we get the porters and when? Until we get this information, my dear Mr. Chang, I am very much afraid we cannot permit you to leave this room....

He is promptly told that he has been called to speak to the benevolent, paternalistic, and despotic High Lama ("The High Lama wishes to see you, Mr. Conway"). Conway jokes: "High Lamas or Low Lamas, do we get the porters?" The group is suspicious of a "stall" tactic, but Conway agrees to meet with the all-powerful High Lama ("The High Lama arranges everything").

In a room illuminated by a candle, the back-lit, wise and wizened old High Lama (Sam Jaffe) - [a caricature of the spiritual leader - the Dalai Lama?] introduces himself to Robert Conway - who is immediately startled, from a subjective camera view, to see a crutch for the Belgian monk, and one solitary leg ("It's astonishing and incredible,'re the man...You're still alive, Father Perrault!"). He clearly realizes, in multiple reaction shots, that The High Lama and Father Perrault are the same man.

Conway is told that he was actually selected and summoned by Sondra because of his idealistic writings ("she has read your books and has a profound admiration for you"):

You may not know it, but I have been an admirer of yours for a great many years. Oh, not of Conway, the empire builder and public hero. I wanted to meet the Conway who, in one of his books said, 'There are moments in every man's life when he glimpses the eternal.' That Conway seemed to belong here. In fact, it was suggested that someone be sent to bring him here.

Conway confirms his suspicions about an underlying reason for the group's 'kidnapping':

Of course, I have suspected that our being here was no accident. Furthermore, I have a feeling that we're never supposed to leave, but that for the moment, doesn't concern me greatly. I'll meet that when it comes. What particularly interests me at present is, 'Why was I brought here? What possible use can I be to an already thriving community.'

The High Priest describes the pacifistic mission behind Shangri-La and introduces Conway to its mysteries where time has virtually stopped. The younger Conway is amazed by the promise of youthfulness in the alpine Eden. With a world destined to be destroyed by wars, violence, and lust for power and domination, Shangri-La was created as a sanctuary for civilization's rare treasures - ready to step in with "new life" after apocalyptic annihilation:

High Priest: We need men like you here, to be sure that our community will continue to thrive, in return for which Shangri-La has much to give you. You are still, by the world's standards, a youngish man. Yet, in the normal course of existence, you can expect twenty or thirty years of gradually diminishing activity. Here, however, in Shangri-La, by our standards, your life has just begun - and may go on and on.
Conway: Hmm. Of course, to be candid, Father, a prolonged future doesn't excite me. It would have to have a point. I've sometimes doubted whether life itself has any. If that is so, then long life must be even more pointless. No, I'd need a much more definite reason for going on and on.
High Priest: We have reason. It is the entire meaning and purpose of Shangri-La. It came to me in a vision long, long ago. I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in the vulgar passions and the will to destroy. I saw their machine power multiplying until a single weaponed man might match a whole army. I foresaw a time when man exulting in the technique of murder, would rage so hotly over the world, that every book, every treasure would be doomed to destruction. This vision was so vivid and so moving that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and culture that I could and preserve them here against the doom toward which the world is rushing. Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other, compelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. The time must come, my friend, when this orgy will spend itself, when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. Against that time is why I avoided death and am here and why you were brought here. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here. For here, we shall be with their books and their music and the way of life based on one simple rule: Be kind. When that day comes, it is our hope that the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout the world. Yes, my son, when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the Earth. (The High Lama stands, smiling with a broad, toothless grin)
Conway: I understand you, Father.
High Priest: You must come again, my son.

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