Frank Capra’s adaptation of James Goodbye, Mr Chips Hilton’s novel has a potent legacy, not least through helping to popularise the name Shangri-La (Roosevelt named the later renamed Camp David retreat after it) and a wholly lambasted musical remake in the ’70s. The Lost Horizon production spiralled out of control and took some time to make its money back, but it still ultimately continued Capra’s hot streak, duly garnering a Best Picture nomination. With hindsight, while one wouldn’t call it a folly, it does betray the unvarnished privilege that has given form to its utopian vision, and one can even muster a modicum of sympathy for Columbia head Harry Cohn in his desire to edit the director’s unwieldy beast down.
Indeed, Graham Greene’s take for The Spectator was so seminal (“this Utopia closely resembles a film star’s luxury estate on Beverly Hills”), it even had the seminal Pauline Kael quoting it. Who added that it was “part popular adventure and part prissy, high-flown cracker-barrel sentimentality”. The film may have cost a bomb, but there’s no mistaking the immaculate but aesthetically anodyne Shangri-La for an exotic environment (it even has sprinkler systems), nor its inhabitants for those of mythic import.
Actually, that isn’t entirely fair. HB Warner’s deferential major domo Chang is a masterfully enigmatic presence. Sam Jaffe’s High Lama, though, a one-legged, two-hundred-year-old Belgian, is a touch underwhelming, which may explain Cohn’s objections (Jaffe was cast after Capra’s first two choices shuffled off their mortal coils, then had to reshoot his scenes with different makeup and dialogue, while Capra was forced to test another actor, Walter Connolly). Jaffe’s sage utterances are said to have inspired Yoda, although he looks more like Deep Space Nine’s Odo.
Sondra: Oh, I wish the whole world would come to this valley.
Robert Conway: Then it wouldn’t be a garden spot for very long.
Then there’s Robert Conway’s (Ronald Colman) love interest Sondra (Jane Wyatt), brought up in Shangri-La and utterly bereft of allure, despite being able to talk to squirrels and pigeons (even her “nude” swimming scene is down to a body double). Margo’s performance – that’s her full name – is more interesting, the eighty-year-old Maria denying her attachment to Shangri-La and desperate to leave, ultimately spelling her doom.
Where is the indigenous populace during all this? Obediently fulfilling their various menial tasks at the behest of their benign western elder, naturally. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see the genesis of Wakanda in this isolated, mineral-rich haven, a place that may lure willing inhabitants but which is to be kept secret from the greater portion of the Earth (the beauty and culture must be preserved “against the doom toward which the world is rushing”). Which is pretty much the guiding principal of the entitled everywhere, even the more outwardly benign ones. Even the promise of aiding the rest of the planet seems predicated on letting it perish first (“when the world beings to look for new hope and finds it here, the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout it”).*
George Conway: I think you’ve been hypnotised by a lot of loose-brained fanatics!
Marvellous homilies abound (“We like to believe it is the absence of struggle in the way we live” that enables extended lifespans; there is “one simple rule: be kind”). There is also the occasional interesting idea about paradigms (what is true for the Shangri-Lans is naturally true of everyone else when it comes to health and longevity; “Age is a limit that we impose upon ourselves”). But Capra fails to find a way to make any of this compelling. It’s an inevitable and recurring problem that the cinematic depiction of peace and serenity is undramatic, such that it relies on artificial conflict to make it otherwise. Alas, by that point your actual story has usually stiffed (see Star Trek: Insurrection).
In Lost Horizon, the main source of such strife is Conway’s brother George, played by John Howard; the party (also consisting of comic relief Edward Everett Horton, Capra regular Thomas Mitchell – Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life – and TB-ridden hooker Isabel Jewell) is lured to Shangri-La due to Robert’s immense suitability as an heir to the High Lama. However, George is out of sorts from the off, and thus the worst kind of spanner in the works. When Robert, finally persuaded to leave, reprimands his younger sibling with “Must you go on babbling?” it’s evident the character is intentionally pitched this way, but it makes him as one note in his oppositional stance as the bliss itself; he’s so overwrought as to be laughable.
Colman is nevertheless rather splendid in the lead role, bringing a worldly-wise, wistful reflectiveness that almost has you believing he’s really found his dream state; it’s just unfortunate that the rendering of said dream is so four-square (still, Lost Horizon received an Oscar for art direction, and one for editing, the latter possibly reflecting the whittling and whittling that occurred after Cohn got hold of it; this led to the current restored but incomplete version).
Lost Horizon’s ending is also curiously dissatisfying; just as the opening is an unnecessarily verbose introduction to the theme, so much of what occurs after Robert leaves – and his brother perishes over a cliff, which’ll happen if you discover you’ve been shagging someone old enough to be your gran – is reported fact at a gentleman’s club; it sounds very exciting, and so is the antithesis of most of the movie.
It’s easy to understand why Capra was so taken with the story, given his expressed intent to raise others up with his films (they “must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they learn to love each other”). One of the problems is perhaps that the novel is too on the nose, too precise a reflection of his intent, so there’s scant room for nuance in the telling (“It held a mirror up to the thoughts of every human being on Earth… Any story that reaches into the hearts and minds of all humanity is a story that can be put on the screen successfully as good entertainment”).
Lost Horizon isn’t an unlikeable film, but it’s in its bones to meander, to talk around dreams come true rather than seize the imagination through visualising them with a creative flourish. Maybe that’s its essential problem, that it isn’t, when it comes down to it, cinematic; Shangri-La is an idea which, as soon as you attempt to grasp, slips away or becomes sullied by underwhelming tangibility. Woe betide Indiana Jones if he goes in search of the fountain of youth for his fourth sequel.
*Addendum 04/08/22: In such terms, one may analogise Shangri-La for Atlantis and Lemuria, per the explanation that they did not, in fact, perish, but rather removed themselves – cloaked themselves – from contact with the rest of the Earth so as to protect themselves from endemic corruption. We find similar ideas with the likes of Wonder Woman’s Amazons.