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.
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.
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.
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.
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.