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Lost Horizon, written by Robert Riskin from the novel by James Hilton, directed by Frank Capra, 1937, 132 min.

Lost Horizon was a bestselling book upon publication in 1933, and this movie adaptation was a prestige picture of the highest order. Frank Capra was one of the biggest directors of the 1930s and 1940s; he won two Oscars for Best Picture, one for It Happened One Night in 1934, and, following Lost Horizon in 1937, one for You Can't Take It With You in 1938. In 1939, he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and then his career high, It's A Wonderful Life in 1946, a deeply cheesy movie and an accomplished tearjerker. Lost Horizon is somewhat of an anomaly in his career, and due to various revisions and cuts, was never seen in its intended form until recently and even now some footage has been lost (see my DVD Note at the end of this review).

Lost Horizon is the story of the discovery of Shangri-La. A group of Americans survive a plane crash in the Himalayas, only to discover the reclusive land that has become a cliché: a paradise hidden away in the mountains. Can these highstrung Americans learn to relax and enjoy the life of meditation and extreme longevity? It's a story filled with talk, but it remains relatively enjoyable even though it inherits many of the flaws of the book and creates some new ones along the way.

The movie changes many things about the book, and some of the most significant changes take place in the role and relationship of the various characters. The book had a decent female character, the even-keeled Miss Brinklow; her substitute character here is a hysterical woman, who shrieks and acts "irrationally." Her only function in the movie is to be healed by the stay at Shangri-La. The native woman Lo-Tsen gets split into two characters -- one becomes a white woman, who flirts with Conway (the ostensible main character) but stays at Shangri-La and waits for his return. The other woman tricks the two men into leaving with her, and she ages into a horrible old hag as her reward. The annoying Mallinson becomes Conway's brother, but remains as annoying. And in a significant change for the ending, Conway makes it back to Shangri-La, where his pet woman is patiently waiting for him. The movie adds some humour between the two characters created for comic relief; one of these is still named Barnard and the other is now a paleontologist. I got a few laughs from an unintentionally hilarious scene with some Sherpas who seemed not to understand the relationship between avalanches and loud noises, which would seem to be a survival trait for mountain inhabitants. Capra's Lost Horizon also changes the structure of the frame story. The movie begins with a bang, a revolution in which our man Conway acts heroically. Later, the British authorities get updates on Conway occasionally, and then a group of men discussing his life show up to give us a new bit of his story: Conway apparently steals, lies, and acts immorally in order to get back to his utopia and his girl. The Himalayan natives call Conway "the man who is not human" but this part is totally skipped over.

Some parts of the movie work well, such as Capra's emphasis on the apocalyptic vision of the High Lama, the leader of Shangri-La. The High Lama's lesson about the dangers of militarism is not one that the world took, but it's there on celluloid, pre-Atomic Era. I also liked the idea that our Western societies are too hasty, too busy -- the High Lama calls it indirect suicide. Another lesson that could be well taken by any of us, myself included. Unfortunately, most of this sharp insight is drowned in sexism and stereotyping, as well as the contrast between the lords of lamasery, who know they are "civilized" and living in utopia, and the people living in the valley. This difference between the lamasery and the valley is much more marked in the movie than in the book, and this further undercuts whatever positive message the viewer may have gained. On the whole, Capra's Lost Horizon is more of an artifact of a certain era of film than a work of art that has worth of its own; recommended for fans of Hilton's book or Capra's career but not a wider audience.

DVD Note: Lost Horizon is now available in a restored DVD. Capra's original version of the movie ran 132 minutes, but he was forced to cut some of the pacifist scenes in the run-up to WWII, and the movie was further altered during WWII to demonize the Japanese (who weren't even in the story originally). Over the years, the missing footage got lost, and a rough print of the missing 30 minutes has been assembled. Even so, there are 7 minutes where only the soundtrack exists, accompanied by still shots. The DVD includes production notes, some deleted scenes, the trailer for the movie, as some background material on the restoration process.


Also see the review of the book this movie is based on.


First posted: December 5, 1997; Last modified: February 17, 2004

Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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