Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937)

Lost Horizon was directed by Frank Capra and released in 1937. It’s based on a 1933 novel which goes by the same name, but hasn’t really been adapted that faithfully. It is a film which has been chopped up and put back together again over the years and as a result of this there are times  on the DVD version when the picture quality dips, or only the audio is available. However, a reasonable attempt has been made to match relevant production stills with the audio. As far as I’m concerned, the diminished picture quality or missing footage does not happen regularly enough throughout to detract from the final product.

It’s a black and white (but nevertheless pretty to look at) film very much of its time; the slowly advancing shadow of the Second World War is palpable. Lost Horizon begins with Disney-style storybook pages which turn as the words are read in a voiceover. The audience is rhetorically asked, “In these days of wars and rumours 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?” From the outset the viewer is prompted to crave the elusive utopia with which the film is so concerned.

The first scene deals with a hectic escape; a mismatched group of individuals are the last to be evacuated from Baskul, China, just prior to the outbreak of a violent revolution. They clamber aboard their flight and start to form unlikely bonds. Before too long they realise that their flight does not appear to be going in the right direction. After a fraught crash landing and an equally fraught hike through the Himalayas, they realise that they have been taken somewhere off the map; to a place that preaches good manners and moderation, “A way of life built on one simple rule: ‘be kind’ ” Made at a time when the threat of war was very real, this story is pure idealistic escapism and it is our hero who takes the ethos of Shangri-La the most to heart.

The hero in question is Robert Conway (played by Ronald Colman). Colman is a relaxed adventurer, with an alluringly clipped British accent. As the protagonist, Conway is shown to have had enough of war. He has dreams of living a world where there are no weapons, but sees himself as powerless to make a difference to the turbulent society which he was born into. When the other characters around him are fearful and hysterically hostile, upon realising that their plane is headed to some unknown location, Conway is calmly optimistic. When he arrives in Shangri-La, he feels immediately at home and seems accepting of the idea that he and the other travellers have technically been abducted.

The visionary founder of this society is the High Lama (played by Sam Jaffe, who I find it difficult to trust as a beneficent utopian leader after a lifetime of watching him try to steal from Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 1971.) The High Lama explains the workings of Shangri-La to Conway at length, meaning that there are some exposition-heavy speeches. Capra obviously felt that these discussions between Conway and the Lama were crucial, he wanted to explain an ideal utopian society in detail to his audience (indeed, Capra’s original cut of this film was much, much longer). To me, however, the point of the film isn’t instructional; it is inspirational and these long speeches threaten to hold up the pace. At the time of Lost Horizon’s release, scenes which made a plea for peace weren’t welcomed by the US government and some of these conversations were trimmed (one short edit is evident because only the audio now survives.)

The enjoyable comedy odd couple in this film are Lovett (the straight man, played by Edward Everett Horton) and Barnard (the joker, portrayed by Thomas Mitchell.) The pair are constantly sniping at one another and Barnard relishes every opportunity he can to irritate Lovett, referring to him as “Lovey.” My favourite character, however, is the surly Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell), who is established as sassy from her first line. Westerners are shown clamouring to climb aboard their plane to safety and she deadpans, “You’d better take some of those squealing men with you first. They might faint on you. I’ll wait.” It is later revealed that she is a terminally ill woman who is a year into her six-months-left-to-live, eager to see those around her “squirm for a change. What a kick.”

Serving as a clear contrast to our hero, Robert Conway, is his brother George (John Howard.) Fringe-tossing, hot-headed George is a tightly wound, highly strung man who fires first and asks questions later. He is unable to keep his cool in moments of tension and demands empirical truth of the wonders of Shangri-La, whereas his brother accepts what he is told. Throughout Lost Horizon, the pace of those local to Shangri-La is slow, George on the other hand is a character who thinks and acts too quickly, who would “go mad” if he had to stay.

A thirties black and white classic wouldn’t be complete without a love interest. In this case, Robert spots his as he enters Shangri-La for the first time in the form of Sondra (Jane Wyatt, who is legendary to me by virtue of the fact that she plays Spock’s mother, Amanda, in the Star Trek TV and original film franchise.) As a woman, Sondra is as idealised as her Shangri-La birthplace. She is in touch with nature; she skinny-dips, seems to be able to understand squirrels and ties mini panpipes to the tails of pigeons, so that strange music follows her wherever she goes. Granted, these behaviours might be classed as symptoms of mental illness in our modern and embittered world, but they seem to be working for her in this instance. Though Sondra is clearly a focus for Robert’s affections, it is Shangri-La itself which he truly falls in love with.

The only aspect of the film which makes me feel a little uncomfortable is that it can feel as if it’s preaching. Even though the Shangri-La residents do not punish those characters who later reject it, they are nevertheless punished in a big way by the narrative itself. The residents of Shangri-La all speak English, even though this fantasy world exists within the Himalayas, and those who seem in control of the society are all very White-Caucasian in appearance. Shangri-La is a place where knowledge and the arts are preserved in the face of all-encompassing destructive warfare. Those who live there are granted good health and incredibly long life, yet there is no interaction with the outside world, who are described in barbaric terms (and presumably are labelled as too foolish to mend their ways.) Possibly in response to this, the local porters who bring supplies every few years seem to look upon the society with disdain or, at least, indifference. The High Lama explains Shangri-La’s philosophy as being built on a “Christian ethic” when surely all other major religions also promote a peaceful life. These problems could easily be explained away by declaring the film to be ‘of its time’, but it doesn’t make those small niggles any less unpalatable.

Small criticisms aside, Lost Horizon is a classic, one which I have manged to re-watch again and again (always a good sign!) The society of Shangri-La is said to survive because its central ideas are based on that of moderation, “As a result the people are… somewhat more than moderately happy.” In my view, this tendency to allow all things in moderation is the reason that the film itself is successful. Capra includes a healthy balance of gentle comedy, naïve romance and a philosophical, even political, message. The last five minutes of the film provide a satisfying ending, but does feel rushed as it easily includes enough spoken content to inspire an entire film in its own right (perhaps one I would like even more.) The final moments of Lost Horizon make it a must-see film for anyone who’s ever had to leave a place that feels like home, as well as do anything to get back there.

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