Lost Horizon [50 Films Older Than Me #39]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #39.

Spoilers ahead.  

Lost Horizon

Directed by Frank Capra.

Release Year:  1937 (33 years before I was born).

What it is about:  In their efforts to evacuate from a politically tumultuous city in China, diplomat Robert Conway, his brother George, and several other passengers find themselves brought to the mysterious city of Shangri-la, a virtual paradise in the middle of the inhospitable Himalayas. The inhabitants of Shangri-la claim their land has strange properties that bring healing and eternal youth. Robert and most of his companions want to stay in Shangri-la, but George convinces Robert to try to leave. The departure leads to disaster and death. Robert escapes back to civilization, but quickly regrets the choice and ultimately returns to Shangri-La.

Starring Ronald Colman as Robert Conway, John Howard as George Conway, Jane Wyatt as Sondra (Robert’s love interest), Margo as Maria (another woman in Shangri-la who is unhappy there), H. B. Warner as Chang (one of main hosts at Shangri-La), and Sam Jaffe as the High Lama (the spiritual leader and founder of Shangri-La). Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell and Isabel Jewell play some of Conway’s travel colleagues.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I didn’t know this movie at all beyond what I’ve read in preparation for watching for in this series–that it is a drama-fantasy by director Frank Capra.

Reality: Lost Horizon is an interesting story, but in its telling sometimes the impact of the story gets a bit lost.

Apparently, the first cut of the film was a whopping six hours long (the final run-time is closer to 2.5 hours). So there’s a whole lot of movie that was made but is not part of the final experience. That doesn’t mean all that material was good, or all the cuts bad, but it does tell us that there might have been a lot more development of the concept and characters that was originally planned but did not make it through the editing process.

The movie starts off very strong. In the city of Baskul, Robert Conway works hard to get the last of the foreigners out of harm’s way of a forthcoming revolution. The sequence is intense with crowds of people desperate to get away, but only those who are actually British being allowed onto a final flight. In the chaos, something, we don’t know what, happens to the pilot, but ultimately the plane takes off with just a small contingent of passengers.

Only when daylight strikes does everyone realize that they are going the wrong way, and then they discover that their pilot has been replaced by a local man who holds all the passengers at bay at gunpoint. The plane lands but only to refuel–nobody is let out and it takes off again. Then somehow, apparently by natural means, the pilot dies, and the plane ends up crashing in the snows of the Himalayas. The chances for everyone’s survival seems bleak until a group of locals find them and bring them all to the mysterious city of Shangri-la.

Shangri-la is a pretty impressive looking place, grand in scope and impressively rendered, for early Hollywood. And it’s here that the mystery deepens. The group become increasingly aware of the fact that they’ve been brought there on purpose, and that nobody has any intention of helping them to leave. Indeed, the dying leader of the community wants Robert to replace him, and fairly easily brings Robert to his side via a couple of conversations about philosophy and peace.

Somewhere in all this, however, the story loses focus. Compelling questions that are set up at the beginning are never really brought to resolution. There is mystery, for example, about whether the people are Shangri-la are speaking the truth–does the place really extend lifespans? Is everyone really happy there? Maria, a woman befriended by George, argues that it does not. She hates the High Lama (the mostly reclusive leader of the community) and is desperate to leave. Others argue that if she leaves she will revert to her real age (something like 150) and quickly die, but she wants to go anyway. But it turns out that the others were right–on the way out, Maria abruptly turns into an old lady and dies in the snow. But then why did she want to leave? Had she forgotten who she was, or did she just not care? Did she just not know that she’d age so abruptly? There are all sorts of potential explanations, but the question is never even addressed. The whole last third of the story is told so haphazardly that I couldn’t help but to be disappointed, particularly since the earlier parts of the movie nicely took their time and told its story with a good amount of detail.

Similarly, the film never really addresses the morally gray actions of the people of Shangri-la–deliberately kidnapping not just Robert but all his companions, against their will, to bring them there.

The fact that most of them decide they are happier there doesn’t really address how questionable this is. Of course George is the opposing voice, but he is also shown to be the most flawed of the group–given to fear and self-sabotage, as well as bouts of mania (even madness). All of this distracts from the fact that he might be the only person there who is looking at the situation rationally. The movie overall shows a lack of cynicism about what is going on that strikes me as odd at best, and contrived at worst.

Where the movie really fails, though, is in the telling of the last 15 minutes or so. Clearly out of time, the film rushes through a whole section of the narrative that really is just as important as what we did see to make the narrative work. After George and Maria’s deaths, Robert finally makes his way to a town somewhere on the way down the giant mountain. From there the movie shifts to a rapid montage of newspaper headlines and discussions from a group of random guys that Conway works with, telling us what happened next: we hear that Conway has amnesia, and can’t remember where he’s been; Conway is coming home; Conway got his memory back and insisted on returning; Conway learned how to fly a plane so he could try to return to Shangri-la; Conway shows tremendous fortitude, courage and determination in his efforts to reclaim his lost paradise; and finally Conway disappears for good, and all we can do is hope that he’s somehow found his “Shangri-la”, whatever that may be.

All of this happens off-screen, and is literally told to the audience, and not shown. And as I listened to it all I couldn’t help but think, “This sounds like a great movie, I wish I could see it.” Of course, it would have to have been a lot longer, or some of the earlier material a lot shorter, to make room for it, so I can understand why the film took this approach. But frankly, almost anything would have been preferrable and more satisfying to watch.

In the end, we do get a short scene of Conway making his way back to Shangri-la, once again seeing the entrance to the hidden paradise. But we don’t get to see him actually get there, or reunite with his friends or with Sondra (his new lady-love who he just abruptly walked away from). We don’t get to see him mourn the loss of his brother or express his profound disappointment at the broken values of his homeland, or anything that helps communicate the idea that he has completed a journey.

It is, frankly, a terribly-told ending which robbed much of the enjoyment that I had had with the film up to that point, and is why I wonder what the six-hour version oft he film would have been like–even though it might not have addressed any of those questions.

Incidentally, the best restoration of Lost Horizon (thanks to the work of the American Film Institute) has a complete soundtrack but is missing about 12 minutes of footage (spread throughout the middle of the movie). This has been replaced with a series of production stills which helps to cover over those missing sections, to give the most complete experience possible of the original film.

Also, two of the supporting characters in the movie are played by Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton.

Mitchell was memorable in It’s a Wonderful Life as Uncle Billy, and also in Stagecoach which I just saw earlier in this series. It was great to see him again in another good performance, this time as soon-to-be-reformed conman, Barnard. Horton, on the other hand, is also good as Lovett, another struggling character who finds new life in Shangri-la. I best remember him as the narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show. He’s got a distinct voice that I still recall even if it’s been years.

Finally, I was struck by the number of similarities between this movie and the TV series, Lost. It’s obvious that the producers of the series were drawing from this, or at least from a lot of general ideas that this movie seems to have inspired. Like Shangri-la, the island in Lost has healing properties, it’s a place where certain “broken” people discover new purpose or meaning to life, it has a long-lived leader who is looking or a replacement, potential replacements are purposely brought to it against their will, and more. The main difference is that the TV show tried to address all the darkness inherent in the premise, while the movie just sort of glossed over it.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? This is one of the bigger disappointments that I’ve had in this series, just because the movie started off quite promisingly, and continued to hold up the quality for a good chunk of the runtime, before apparently just running out of steam and petering out in the end.

See here for the Master List.

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3 thoughts on “Lost Horizon [50 Films Older Than Me #39]

  1. Lost Horizon certainly remains a most relevant film for dramatizing how entering an astonishingly new world, for better or worse, may change our attitudes, our desires and even our self-awareness. When it becomes a powerful obsession to return to something that was once so beautiful to us, that may present the issues of how addictive a world like Shangri-La could potentially be. For people of course who can naturally live the majority of their existence in such a world, it’s a dichotomy when we grasp the ultimate impact from outsiders like us. Perhaps the “Lost” in the title can refer to how we easily we can lose ourselves. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

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