Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Lost Horizon (1937)

Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, based on James Hilton’s bestselling novel, was the most expensive and most ambitious movie Columbia had made up to that point when it was released in 1937. It had mixed fortunes at the box office and took several years to get into the black. It’s now of course regarded as one of Capra’s most important movies.

Lost world stories had been immensely popular in popular literature for many years prior to this, going back to the unbelievably successful novels of H. Rider Haggard in the 1880s. The lost world genre was ideally suited to motion pictures and the 1930s saw notable film adaptations of several of the best such stories such as Haggard’s She. James Hilton’s Lost Horizon combined the lost world and the utopian genres (the utopian genre having an even longer literary pedigree).

Capra’s film certainly hits the ground running with superbly execute scenes of terror and chaos as British diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) has to try to evacuate Europeans caught in the middle of yet another war in China. It is 1935, and this was the war lord period in China, a time of extraordinary violence and anarchy.

Conway and his brother George (John Howard) make their escape in the last aircraft to leave, along with an eccentric palaeontologist named Lovitt (Edward Everett Horton), a mysterious and none-too-honest American businessman named Barnard (Thomas Mitchell) and a young American girl named Gloria (Isabel Jewell).

They think they have escaped, until they realise their aircraft is heading west rather than east, and the pilot has locked himself in the cockpit. They have in fact been kidnapped although at this stage they have no idea of the reasons or of the identity of those responsible. The plane crashes in Tibet. The passengers survive the crash but but their long-term prospects seem grim until they are rescued a party sent from a nearby lamasery.  After a harrowing journey across ice and snow and mountains they find themselves in the lamasery, located above a fertile and temperate valley. They have found Shangri-La. Or it might be more correct to say that Shangi-La has found them.

Shangri-La is entirely cut off from the world and our five reluctant adventurers soon realise that they are being kept prisoner, although in the nicest possible way. But why on earth were they brought to Shangri-La and what kind of place is it? When they find the answer to those questions they must then ask themselves if they really want to leave after all.

Of course there has to be a romance. Robert Conway falls head over heels in love with the enigmatic Sondra (Jane Wyatt) while George falls for the equally mysterious Russian girl Maria (played by Margo).

Modern audiences might expect at his point to encounter a great deal of “mysterious wisdom of the East” silliness. In fact Shangri-La is a Christian community. That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of silliness in Lost Horizon - it’s just that this is a slightly different variety of silliness.

I have to put my cards on the table here and state that the idea of utopia always awakens my latent scepticism. When someone tells me (as the High Lama tells Conway in this movie) that here is an earthly paradise where there is no greed, no lust, no violence, no anger and no jealousy my cynicism kicks into overdrive. Let’s be honest. These are universal human emotions. The only way a society can eliminate them is by force. All dissent must be crushed. All dissenters must be punished. Underneath the starry-eyed idealism there has to be a form of totalitarianism. Needless to say Capra doesn’t want to confront such unpleasant realities. Shangri-La can only be a fantasy. When we see Robert Conway swallowing the fantasy hook, line and sinker we’re seeing an apparently intelligent middle-aged man falling for something that we would expect would be somewhat unconvincing even to an over-sensitive undergraduate.

There are a couple of moments in the film that do suggest that perhaps Shangri-La is not quite so perfect. If this is indeed the earthly paradise why is Maria prepared to pay any price, no matter how high, to escape?

The one character who doesn’t buy the fantasy is George Conway. We seem to be  expected to see him as perhaps not quite the villain but certainly as the one who  threatens the chances of the others to find perfect peace and happiness in this magical fairyland. On the surface Shangri-La may seem to be all fluffy bunnies, group hugs and Kumbaya by the campfire but to George it looks like a soul-destroying nightmare. George is the character we’re supposed to disapprove of, which might be why he’s the only character for whom I felt any sympathy at all.

That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t have its virtues. It’s visually magnificent. The crew never left California but the movie manages to convince us we really are in a lost world somewhere in the Himalayas. The film uses a mixture of location shooting in California, miniatures shots, process shots and matte paintings. Many scenes were filmed in an ice warehouse to create an authentic atmosphere of extreme cold. It all works superbly. The lamasery itself is interesting. It looks like a Tibetan monastery designed by a modernist architect. If Le Corbusier had designed lamaseries they would have looked like this. This actually works quite well - after all Shangri-La is an imaginary place.

Ronald Colman tries hard and is a charming as ever but he never quite convinces me that the hard-headed diplomat who hopes to be Foreign Secretary one day could actually fall for all this universal brotherhood stuff. The performance just doesn’t quite ring true. John Howard doesn’t really have the acting chops to pull off his role as Conway’s brother. Jane Wyatt looks lovely but Sondra still comes across as an irritatingly naïve teenager with all the ignorance and arrogance of youth. Sam Jaffe is truly cringe-inducing as the High Lama. He’s trying to convey idealism and spirituality but to me he seems merely foolish and sanctimonious. Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell are there to provide comic relief but they end up being the best things about the movie.

My fairly old (late 1990s) DVD copy offers an almost complete print of a movie that had been hacked to pieces by the studio for re-release in the 40s. Image quality is extremely variable, this print being assembled from various sources. There are however plenty of quality extras. 

Lost Horizon is worth seeing for the very impressive visuals. Whether you actually enjoy the story is a matter of taste. It’s a well-made movie but it’s definitely not my cup of tea.


  1. Pauline Kael skewered this movie (and its awful remake) in her review, in one of her collections. One agrees with every word she says.

  2. I think you go this pretty well, although Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton almost make thin thing worthwhile. Re John Howard: David Niven and Louis Hayward both tested for the part of George, and the other guy was selected. Wow! As for Same Jaffe, another Wow in the wrong direction. Your comment made the review. Cringe Worthy. You bet. Oh, I thought Jane Wyatt fantastic. Fun, and sexy as hell.

  3. Despite the negative comments - many of which I agree with - the film is nevertheless a c llassic. It succeeds in suspending disbelief and largely succeeds in making us yearn for that ever distant utopian dream of peace and contentment. It is preachy, and that is goid. As such, the movie has substance. It also has adventure, and is worth watching again and again. The black and white works well - as it does in Kurosawa movies. I wish they had of released the original 6 hr and / 3 1/2 hour cuts - these would have been wonderful to sit rmthrough in this modern era of streaming and Netflix.