Along with Woody Allen’s Sleeper, Lost Horizon is another movie recommended to me by fellow blogger Badfinger20. It is a Frank Capra film based on the 1933 novel of the same name by James Hilton.
IMDB storyline: British diplomat Robert Conway and a small group of civilians crash land in the Himalayas, and are rescued by the people of the mysterious, Eden-like valley of Shangri-la. Protected by the mountains from the world outside, where the clouds of World War II are gathering, Shangri-la provides a seductive escape for the world-weary Conway. But is it the miraculous utopia it appears to be?
I was a little bit skeptical coming into this since I wouldn’t have exactly classed myself a doting fan of Frank Capra. I found his movies a little bit too saccharine for my tastes. Despite my dubiousness Badfinger20 urged me towards trying this early Capra piece. It is an almost impossible task to discuss this movie without revealing the biggest spoiler of them all which is the answer to the question (which would have all audiences pondering): Is Shangri-la the miraculous utopia it appears to be?
Firstly, Lost Horizon is a big film production for its time. It took 10 months to shoot and the film well exceeded its original budget. In fact the first cut of the film was six hours long. The studio considered releasing it in two parts, but eventually decided the idea was impractical. The version of the movie I saw was the complete 123-minute soundtrack. Some of the film was badly degraded and useless, so the restorers used sills to fill in the missing minutes. I only found it partially distracting but moreover I felt the scenes with the audio and sills were necessary to the story.
The sets they used in Lost Horizon were astounding. I doubt Capra’ vision of Shangri-la could even be replicated by today’s production standards. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia: Harry E. Huffman, owner of a chain of movie theaters in downtown Denver, Colorado, built a replica of the monastery depicted in the film as a private residence in 1937, calling it Shangri-La which still remains to this day. Honestly, I don’t know how Capra and his team pulled it off. Also the avalanche and mountain trekking scenes are outstanding even by today’s standards of hammy computer effects.
Ronald Colman was fabulous in the demanding lead role. It’s difficult to think of another actor who could have filled the shoes of the alluring Robert Conway as well as he did. He truly made it his. The three supporting beautiful actresses were stellar as well.
The mystical and captivating High Lama who we learn was in fact the founder of Shangri-la 200 years before explains to our protagonist Robert Conway that his presence at Shangri-la is by no way an accident. On a side note, the High Lama’s dazzling speech to Conway is almost prophetical as he describes his vision of forthcoming destruction. The prophecy would nearly eventuate two years after the movie’s release with the invasion of Poland and later the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Shangri-la is essentially a Christian missionary’s version of paradise. It’s been attempted many times in history. I had only seen more sober takes on the reality of attempting such quests such as De Niro in The Mission, Scorsese’s Silence and Peter Weir’s Mosquito Coast. Half way through the movie I thought I was in Conway’s dream or even his after-life after his plane went down in the Himalayas.
Lost Horizon is a wonderful movie. Probably few movies demonstrate like Lost Horizon just how movies used to be made – a little bit of blood, sweat and tears, and that in itself is its crowning achievement. You can envisage just how much work went into this movie to bring you this endearing tale. It definitely had me by the short and curlies when Conway’s brother brings a young female Shangri-la resident to Conway to convince him to escape with them from the idyllic Shangri-la.
‘I believe it (Shangri-La) because I want to believe it’