Skip to main content

Did you ever go to a totally strange place and feel certain you'd been there before?

Lost Horizon
(1937)

(SPOILERS) 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 production of Lost Horizon 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 down the director’s unwieldy beast.

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 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”) and the occasional interesting idea about paradigms is presented (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, but usually by that point your actual story has stiffed (see Star Trek: Insurrection).

In Lost Horizon, the main source of such conflict is Conway’s brother George, played by John Howard; the party (also consisting of comic relief Edward Everett Horton and 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, but 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 invoked 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”), but the problem is perhaps that the novel is too on the nose, to 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, essentially, 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.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
(SPOILERS) You see? Sometimes Oscar can get it right. Not that the backlash post-announcement would have you crediting any such. No, Saving Private Ryan had the rug unscrupulously pulled from under it by Harvey Weinstein essentially buying Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture through a lavish promotional campaign. So unfair! It is, of course, nothing of the sort. If the rest of Private Ryan were of the same quality as its opening sequence, the Spielberg camp might have had a reasonable beef, but Shakespeare in Love was simply in another league, quality wise, first and foremost thanks to a screenplay that sang like no other in recent memory. And secondly thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow, so good and pure, before she showered us with goop.

The Statue of Liberty is kaput.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
(SPOILERS) William Goldman said of Saving Private Ryan, referencing the film’s titular objective in Which Lie Did I Tell? that it “becomes, once he is found, a disgrace”. “Hollywood horseshit” he emphasised, lest you were in doubt as to his feelings. While I had my misgivings about the picture on first viewing, I was mostly, as many were, impacted by its visceral prowess (which is really what it is, brandishing it like only a director who’s just seen Starship Troopers but took away none of its intent could). So I thought, yeah Goldman’s onto something here, if possibly slightly exaggerating for effect. But no, he’s actually spot-on. If Saving Private Ryan had been a twenty-minute short, it would rightly muster all due praise for its war-porn aesthetic, but unfortunately there’s a phoney, sentimental, hokey tale attached to that opening, replete with clichéd characters, horribly earnest, honorific music and “exciting!” action to engage your interest. There are…

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

I’m the spoiled toff who lives in the manor.

Robin Hood (2018)
(SPOILERS) Good grief. I took the disdain that greeted Otto Bathurst’s big screen debut with a pinch of salt, on the basis that Guy Ritchie’s similarly-inclined lads-in-duds retelling of King Arthur was also lambasted, and that one turned out to be pretty good fun for the most part. But a passing resemblance is as close as these two would-be franchises get (that, and both singularly failed to start their respective franchises). Robin Hood could, but it definitely didn’t.

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …