Review: Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937)

Posted by Bennett O'Brian March 14, 2013 3 Comments 12288 views

How would you feel if you, through a series of extraordinary circumstances, became the prisoner of a utopian society? with all your physical and intellectual needs met as you live out your days in an opulent palace free from the daily grind of social status and higher wages? How would you react being the unwilling captive of a benevolent and reclusive civilization which lives in peaceful harmony with its surroundings? Would you be the enlightened thinker who embraces the better life that you’ve been granted – or would you be the malcontent who shuns utopia in the compulsion to return to the imperfect life you previously knew? No, you haven’t just stepped into a Rod Serling monologue from The Twilight Zone, but we’re not too far off. Just over the next mountain range, nestled in a lush valley between icy summits, resides the mythical city of Shangri-La as it was imagined by director Frank Capra in the Oscar-nominated film Lost Horizon.

Based on a the philosophical fantasy novel by James Hilton, Lost Horizon follows a group of westerners fleeing turmoil in China whose plane crashes in an unexplored region of the Himalayan mountains. Once there, the travelers are rescued by an indigenous tribe and led to their secluded paradise hidden in the mountains. But, as is the case with most utopias we experience in films, something is amiss in Shangri-La. When the group of visitors begin to inquire about transportation or methods of contacting the outside world, their hosts politely and cryptically decline to offer any solid solutions. Some members of the group like author and diplomat Robert Conway (played by Ronald Colman) feel reborn and invigorated by their time in the mountaintop paradise, while others, like his brother George, begin to feel like hostages and become infuriated by the mysterious motivations of their hosts. Have the Conway brothers actually gained access to a legendary city inhabited by a race of immortals? Or are the travelers subject to some elaborate fraud perpetuated for unknown reasons? Or did they all perish in the plane crash at the beginning of the picture? The film, like the keepers of Shangri-La, ultimately declines to give us a definitive answer and its finale dissolves like another’s dream described over libations. A generation before television programs Science Fiction Theatre, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone and Star Trek made these kinds of thought experiments a weekly routine, Capra’s Lost Horizon was challenging audiences with a cerebral voyage probing subconscious matters perception and identity.

Considering the subject matter, it shouldn’t be surprising that Lost Horizon has had a certain amount of legend attached to it in the 77 years since it was made. In particular, the project seems to have been cursed by vengeful gods vehemently opposed to musical adaptations. In 1956, the film’s thoughtful dialogue-drive story line was converted into a Broadway musical called Shangri-La which was forced to close after only 21 performances. Having learned nothing from this failure, Columbia Pictures lost over eight million when they remade Lost Horizon into film musical in 1971.

Similar to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Lost Horizon is one of those cinematic epics which are famous for being partially lost. Production went considerably over budget and it took Columbia several years to get a return on the investment, but the studio capitalized on the runaway nature of the project boasting “Millions to Make It! Two Years in Production!” in advertising copy. Within the mythology of Hollywood history, it has been alleged that Capra shot enough scenes and dialogue to constitute a motion picture approaching six hours in length and the Shangri-La set was thought to be the biggest ever created for a talkie. Before its national release, a three-and-a-half hour version of the film was screened before a test audience in Santa Barbara and the negative feedback led the studio to retool the project – including heavy edits as well as going back into production to shoot additional footage. The final version that was exhibited nationally had a running time of 132 minutes. However, over the course of its life, Lost Horizon has been mercilessly subject to the most horrendous forms editing perhaps due to the film’s emphasis on philosophical dialogue over action. Sadly, in 1967 it was discovered that Columba’s original nitrate negatives had deteriorated and all full-length versions of the pictures were considered to be lost.

The version of the film I saw, which is a restoration by the American Film Institute presented on TCM, returns Capra’s utopian vision to its original 132 minutes by using a complete audio track and filling in a missing seven minutes of footage with still images. Most of the seven minutes aren’t particularly vital to the film’s storyline, aside from a segment of a longer exchange between Conway and Shangri-La’s High Lama. These seven minutes of still images make this particular restoration of Lost Horizon an overtly self-conscious viewing experience, analogous to when a string of written exposition drops into restorations of Lang’s Metropolis. Unfortunately for us, it is more difficult to lose yourself in a partially lost film – because the imperfections, the break in the visual rhythm of the picture, make you aware that you are watching merely the approximation of something rather than the thing itself. But classic film fandom can always pray that somewhere out there Capra’s six-hour version of Lost Horizon endures in secret, just waiting to be unearthed like Shangri-La itself.

Watch a Clip from Lost Horizon


Watch Frank Capra speak about Lost Horizon


There are 3 Comments

  1. Ray
    - March 16, 2013
      -   Reply

    Thank you for a thoughtful review. I really liked the slant of ‘something a bit dodgy in the state of Shangri La ‘.
    For years I always took the film at face value.. that Robert C. was the hero, and George was a weakling malcontent who didn’t know a good thing when he saw it..
    But when I watched it a few years back, I began to doubt.
    Something hit me… “Hey, this is an ‘ Anti Casablanca’, done 5 years previously.
    (So perhaps it would be clearer to say Casa is an anti ‘Lost horizon’)
    Let me put it this way… Our Hero, Robert C, has fought the good fight. He has seen dangers to the world and opposed them. Then he becomes dis-illusioned and ‘retires’ to Shangri la…. his cafe-bar- where he can find personal rest. Stired by events, he resumes the fight.. ie leaves- for the good of others.
    But then.. he dislikes the outside world… he wants to get back to his own small world. he goes back to the mountains in desperate search for ‘Robert’s cafe American’. “The world can stew in it’s own problems.. I’m going back to Casablanca/Shangri La in the hope that Ingrid Bergman is still there for me. I’ve done my bit to save the world from itself, and it didn’t get anywhere – time for some me time “.
    As Casablanca is a celebration of America coming out of isolationism, this is a plea for America not getting involved.
    Just a thought..

  2. - March 16, 2013
      -   Reply

    I cannot believe I haven’t seen ANY version of this film. And I call myself a classic movie blogger. Sheesh.

  3. - March 19, 2013
      -   Reply

    (This comment contains 77-year-old spoilers)
    That’s an interesting thought about the film’s depiction of individual isolationism. Many things take on an altered meaning when you consider them in the context of the world war. The description on the back of the DVD stated that Lost Horizon was edited during the war years for its pacifist message. I suppose the difference between pacifism and isolationism depends on the gravity of extenuating circumstances.
    I was able to track down a copy of the DVD print that Columbia Pictures released in 1999, and it is indeed the American Film Institute restoration that was shown on Turner Classic Movies: It runs 132 minutes and uses still images to compensate for the lost footage. There is an extended ending that shows Robert Conway’s return to Shangri-La, but this time we see him embrace the film’s love interest Sondra (played by Jane Wyatt). But altogether, the difference between this and the original ending is less than ten seconds of footage and it does not change the overall meaning of the film.

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