On “Lost Horizon”


Today is the anniversary of the release date of that mysterious classic Lost Horizon (1937).

This film is (like the best-selling 1933 James Hilton novel it is based on) a sui generis, and its principal payoff upon repeated encounters is simply in trying to figure out what it is: science fiction, disaster movie, Gothic horror, esoteric bildungsroman, soap opera, art deco design orgy, and thanks to director Frank Capra, and ensemble members like Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell, frequently a comedy.


The early scenes are best, as our hero Ronald Colman,a diplomat, and several other folks are evacuated by plane from turmoil in colonial India and crash land in the Himalayas. The little company includes Horton and Mitchell, as well as Colman’s impetuous younger brother, played by John Howard, and a terminally ill woman, played by Isabel Jewell. Some sherpas rescue them and lead them to the land of Shangri-La (that name comes from this story), unknown to outsiders, where all the inhabitants are peaceful and live for many centuries, like in Shaw’s Back to Methusaleh. Their wise man is played by Sam Jaffe, Colman’s love interest is played by Jane Wyatt (an Asian in the book, her character is here glossed into an orphaned European so as not offend any racists who might be in the audience). The sets are gorgeous:


Then the movie, much like the mythical land where it is set, just sort of plateaus. The dramatic difficulty is a formidable one. They are in Utopia. Everything is perfect. So for quite a while the entire cast is hanging out in a very nice place, being very happy. The theoretical tension comes from the question, “Should we stay here or go back to our real lives?” Somehow, though, in a movie, or at least this movie that seems a very inert question, sort of “win/win”. If we know that some of them had things back in the real world that really meant a lot to them and were pulling them back, it would increase the dilemma and be stronger. Another, more tempting scenario (to me) is to have the place turn out to be sinister on some level. Already there is a kernel of that here. The idea of being kidnapped and forced to reside at the top of an impassable mountain, then have several of your co-travelers resign themselves to it…this can be terrifying to the paranoid part of our brains. Or the place could turn out to be hell, as was done in the similar 1972 tv movie Haunts of the Very Rich. 

Interestingly, the following year (1973), Lost Horizon was made into a notoriously bad musical. 

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