Lawrence Russell

Lost Horizon (1937) dir. Frank Capra writ. Robert Riskin (from the novel by James Hilton) cine. Joseph Walker aerial cine. Elmer Dyer special effects E. Roy Davidson & Ganahl Carson edt. Gene Havlick & Gene Milford art. Stephen Goosson music. Dimitri Tiomkin (dir. Max Steiner)

star. Ronald Colman (Robert Conway), Jane Wyatt (Sondra), John Howard (George Conway), Edward Everett Horton (Lovett), Isabel Jewell (Gloria), Thomas Mitchell (Barnard), Margo (Maria), H.B. Warner (Chang), Sam Jaffe (High Lama)

Columbia Pictures

Five people are kidnapped when escaping a local revolution in Baskul, China. Instead of being flown to Shanghai, the DC 2 continues east into the mountains beyond Tibet where it runs out of fuel and crashes in the snowy mountain coll of an unknown Himalayan range. The mysterious hijacker dies in the cockpit, the passengers survive... but what could their fate be other than a frozen, anonymous death? Out of the dead light of the endless snow a party of rescuers materialize, led by the enigmatic Chang, who, it appears, has been expecting them. Explanations are left for another time. The five passengers are roped together like slaves and led across the treacherous mountain precipices to a cave, which opens like a dream onto the verdant valley country of Shangri-La.

In fact, as the five are led to the "Lamasery" -- a chic modernist villa straight off the drawing board of a Frank Lloyd Wright, situated high in the mountains above the Valley of the Blue Moon -- and the reason for their kidnapping is slowly revealed, one might be excused for thinking that these characters were actually killed in the plane crash and that Shangri-La is to be their version of heaven. The idealism of James Hilton's story is yet another in the tradition of closed utopian societies, although the underlying despair of its bourgeois Buddhism is very much a symptom of the 1930s. World economic Depression, the rise of Fascism, technological warfare, ethnic persecution, the rejection of "benign" colonialism and the Christian ethic, were reasons for anxiety among liberals in the western democracies... an anxiety that Lost Horizon's Hollywood director Frank Capra shared.

Lost Horizon: the Lamastry

Lost Horizon opened in March of 1937, the year after Mussolini annexed Ethiopia, Hitler occupied the Rhineland, and the Spanish Civil War started. It was a bad time for those who believed in the egalitarianism of a pluralist society of equal rights regardless of religion or ethnic origin. Capra was among the first of the big Hollywood directors to publicly denounce fascism and its persecution of minorities. For this reason, Lost Horizon is an important film, regardless of its clunky narrative and stagey situations (some of which can be blamed on the usual studio politics which led to editing compromises), as it clearly defines the gospel of social moderation that most Americans believed in.

In an early scene at the Lamasery, the hero Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) discusses the purpose of the community at Shangri La with his host Chang (H.B. Warner):

Conway: By the way, what religion do you follow here?

Chang: I would say it was "moderation". It's the virtue of avoiding excesses of every kind... including the excess of virtue itself.

Conway: Well that's intelligent.

Chang: We believe that in the Valley it makes for greater happiness among the natives... we all live with moderate strictness... and in return we're satisfied with moderate obedience... as a result people are moderately honest, moderately chaste... and they're somewhat more than moderately happy.

Does this paternalism sound familiar? The benevolent Anglicanism of Charles Dickens, say... or even the naive humanism of Neville Chamberlain. Of course it proved to be ironic that Robert Conway himself was returning to England to assume the job of Foreign Secretary when he was abducted by an agent of the High Lama... and why was he abducted? He was seen as the natural man to become the successor of the High Lama as the "philosopher king" of Shangri-La.

While this sort of secular Buddhism still has its adherents today, there are those who see "moderation" as a social illness. In J.G. Ballard's most recent novel Super Cannes one of the characters takes a direct swipe at this philosophy: "The Twentieth Century has ended with its dreams in ruins. The notion of the community as a voluntary association of enlightened citizens has died forever. We realize how suffocatingly humane we've become, dedicated to moderation and the middle way. The suburbanization of the soul has overrun our planet like the plague."

Lost Horizon Lost Horizon: the Lamastry

As a man of action, the character of Robert Conway is very much a romanticism of the period. He's like T.E. Lawrence, author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and hero of the Desert Revolt (against the Turks), as dramatized in David Lean's famous film Lawrence of Arabia. Author, scholar, mystic, an uneasy public servant in the colonial extravagance. Another model -- the one exploited visually by Capra -- is George Leigh-Mallory, the British climber who disappeared near the summit of Everest in 1927. Mallory's disappearance became a mystical event in the imaginations of many: did he achieve the summit of Everest? He was last seen disappearing into the perpetual snow storm wearing a tweed jacket, the quintessential example of a man determined to succeed, regardless of the odds.

And why did Mallory want to climb Everest? "Because it is there." The statement is famous, although we seldom know who said it, and why. Oddly, Mallory's mummified body was found in 1999 on a slope at 27,000 feet, having fallen from a higher elevation... whether during the ascent to or descent from the summit still remains a mystery.

Lost Horizon: Conway searches for Shangri La

The image of a driven man staggering through the snow in search of Shangri-La is how Capra ends his version of Lost Horizon. Conway's success is that of a man obsessed with recapturing a deja vu. Early in their captivity at the Lamasery, Conway tells his disgruntled younger brother George that Shangri-La feels familiar, as if he's been here before. In fact, he has been summoned by a woman, a "young" beauty who has read his books, detected a kindred utopian soul. The implication is that the ideal of a sanctuary within and without this world is a shared ideal because it exists within the collective imagination.

Capra's first cut of Lost Horizon used a frame narrative which established the mystical level of Conway's condition. Conway is found a year after his disappearance as an amnesiac who wanders into a Chinese Mission. On his way back to England on the S.S. Manchuria, he relaxes in the ship's lounge with Lord Gainsford, an associate from the Foreign Office detailed to bring him home. Conway hears someone playing Chopin on the piano... he takes over, begins playing in B Minor. When asked, he says it's an unpublished piece he learned from a student of Chopin's. But how could this be? The student would have to be over 120 years old... the recollection of Shangri La now comes back to him, and this sequence segues into the Baskul Airport scene which opens the current version.

Lost Horizon: Conway remembers

We return to the frame at the end, where Conway is found by some villagers, and the action resolves as we now know Lost Horizon. The recollection is so overpowering, he flees the ship immediately, hell bent on getting back to his abandoned love Sondra in her mountain paradise. He's pursued by Lord Gainsford (like a routine from a Jules Verne novel) who cables details back to London... and when he loses Conway in the mountains, returns to London where he sums up the action over scotch and soda at The Embassy Club. It's unfortunate that the opening sequences of the frame narrative were excised as they contribute a better understanding of the mystical nature of Conway's experience. The recent DVD reissue of Lost Horizon contains a fascinating commentary by Kendall Miller, an expert on the history and making of this film, which includes the missing scenes.

There are a number of curious aspects to this film that Time has brought into focus. For example, the utopia is elitist despite its best intentions. It exists as an example of passive colonialism, complete with a class structure. While the term "native" is just the de facto terminology of the era, it nonetheless reinforces the Eurocentric aspect of the fantasy. Is the story racist? No, although the weary sentimentality of "the white man's burden" is clearly evident. The Lamasery has servants, and they're all Asian. Yet while the High Lama's No. 2 man is called Chang, he neither looks nor sounds Asian (in Hilton's novel, he is Chinese). In fact, he looks and sounds like a head butler imported from the Embassy Club to complete the colonial circle.

While the habitues of the Lamasery are international, they could be a European clique in the Free Port of Shanghai. Maria is Russian, Sondra is English... and the commune's founder Father Perrault is Belgian. The kidnapped group is British and American, as if Art and the ideals of higher civilization are strictly a Caucasian concern. No doubt this was the reality of the period, yet it presents an interesting duality when viewed in context with the period alternative, fascism.

Modernism is really built on the principle of the straight line... and when applied to thinking, can easily become fascism. Direct action appeals to an intellectual elite just as much as an escapist community such as Shangri La. Just how far is the High Lama's art community of white Europeans and their docile Asian servants removed from the penthouse of the Berlin Chancellory where Hitler and Albert Speer discussed Art and developed The Theory of Ruin Value? The Art Deco isometrics are almost identical when drained of sentiment. As the main players enact their fantasy, the rank and file become ephemeral, mere markers of geometric space.

"You speak English," Conway says almost without surprise to the native grooms who stand obediently with the horses in the pristine morning light of the Lamasery grounds.

Lost Horizon: Sondra

When Conway pursues Sondra on horseback from the neo-Egyptian architecture of the Lamasery and finds her swimming naked in an idyllic mountain pool, he could be pursuing Leni Riefenstahl in a Arnold Fanck silent. The fact that she's in a state of suspended youth is part of the illusion and the ideology. His brother George tells him the elixir of Shangri-La is merely a lie to hold him prisoner to a false ideal... but when Maria (George's Shangri- La paramour) reverts to her true age and dies a withered crone as they escape through the mountains, the Truth of the Shangri-La ideal is confirmed. Thus Conway's subsequent amnesia is a metaphor, concealing an ideal that only requires the the right moment to reveal it.

For Conway, the deja vu is a passage of Chopin in the piano lounge of the S.S. Manchuria.

As a drama, Lost Horizon relies on many of the conventions and cliches of the period: a man of action (Conway), a fugitive swindler (Barnard), a terminal cynic (Gloria), a buffoon (Lovett), an impulsive young man (George), a femme fatale (Sondra)... all the essential personalities for creating or continuing a castaway society. The main difference between the screenplay and the novel is that the characters are Americanized to suit the target audience. Hilton has four castaways, Capra has five... and the absconding aircraft becomes a DC-2 rather than a small "high-altitude" plane belonging to an Indian Raj. Rooted in the romantic action novel of the late nineteenth century, Hilton's story raids the supernatural elements of Rider-Haggard's She, or even H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

Justly famous for its sets -- in particular, the Lamasery, and the plane crash -- Lost Horizon is a great example of 30's Hollywood modernism. The editing, too, uses montage to compress the News headlines and deliver the necessary background information for the story... a style which was later refined by Orson Welles and Robert Wise in Citizen Kane.

© LR 6/2001


reviews | e-mail LR | features | culture court

Culture Court | copyright 2001 | Lawrence Russell