I’ve always enjoyed the films of director Frank Capra so when I saw a DVD on the library shelf of a Capra film I’ve never seen before I had to check it out. Lost Horizon(1937) however is not a typical Frank Capra film. Lost Horizon was released in the midst of a string of Capra’s most famous movies It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1940). These films all illustrate Capra’s usual modus operandi of telling a story about ordinary people in America who are heroic merely by performing everyday deeds. Lost Horizon is more of a big budget adventure film set in distant lands, but it still has the Capra touch.
Beware of spoilers!
Lost Horizon begins in 1935 in China where in the midst of a rebellion at an airport where European and American people are being evacuated. This rather racist scene presents the native Chinese as teeming hordes not worthy of saving. One flight that takes off just as the rebels arrive holds British diplomat Bob Conway played by Ronald Colman with a dashing pencil-thin mustache. Conway is an idealist with a dream for a world free of war. Other passengers on the flight include the fussy paleontologist Lovett (Edward Everett Horton who later went on to narrate “Fractured Fairy Tales” on the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show), the terminally ill Gloria (Isabel Jewell), and Bob’s brother George (John Howard), an angry young man. Unbeknown to the passengers, the pilot is knocked out by a mysterious Tibetan man and they are actually being abducted and flown west into the mountains. The plane crashes in the snowy mountains killing the pilot, but the stranded passengers are rescued by a mysterious man named Chang (H.B. Warner) who leads them to a sheltered valley of Shangri-La (incidentally, the author of the book Lost Horizon James Hilton created the term/concept of Shangri-La based on the Tibetan Buddhist legend of Shambhala).
Conway immediately takes a liking to the utopian society of Shangri-La and his fellow castaways warm up to it after their initial resistance. The only exception is George who wishes to flee Shangri-La and return to “civilization” to the bitter end, leading to the film’s dénouement. Conway learns that their arrival is not accidental that he was in fact brought there due to his idealist pacifist views. He has long philosophical conversations with the aged High Lama (Sam Jaffe) who turns out to be a Belgian priest who stumbled upon Shangri-La centuries before. Conway also falls in love with Sondra (Jane Wyatt), a smart, independent, and gorgeous young woman who has read Conway’s political writings.
Lost Horizon feels to me in many ways to be a much more modern movie than 1937 albeit much slower than a modern day action film. Ideas of pacifism, communal living, Eastern spirituality and women’s equality are all advanced in a clear and honest way. The George Conway subplot seems kind of forced to advance the plot and justify the big budget adventure aspects. In many ways the big budget seems to hurt more than help as the lavish sets and supporting cast are merely peripheral to the key story of Conway’s self-realization.
I think this movie had a lot of influence beyond the concept of Shangri-La. I felt at many times that I’d seen this story somewhere before. Didn’t this happen in a Star Trek episode? Is the High Lama played by David Carradine or Marlon Brando? It’s an uneven movie, but enjoyable and worth watching.