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

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Fifty medications didn’t work because I’m really a reincarnated Russian blacksmith?

Infinite (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s as if Mark Wahlberg, his lined visage increasingly resembling a perplexed potato, learned nothing from the blank ignominy of his “performances” in previous big-budget sci-fi spectacles Planet of the Apes and, er, Max Payne . And maybe include The Happening in that too ( Transformers doesn’t count, since even all-round reprobate Shia La Boeuf made no visible dent on their appeal either way). As such, pairing him with the blandest of journeyman action directors on Infinite was never going to seem like a sterling idea, particularly with a concept so far removed from of either’s wheelhouse.

I can do in two weeks what you can only wish to do in twenty years.

Wrath of Man (2021) (SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie’s stripped-down remake of Le Convoyeur (or Cash Truck , also the working title for this movie) feels like an intentional acceleration in the opposite direction to 2019’s return-to-form The Gentleman , his best movie in years. Ritchie seems to want to prove he can make a straight thriller, devoid of his characteristic winks, nods, playfulness and outright broad (read: often extremely crude) sense of humour. Even King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its fair share of laughs. Wrath of Man is determinedly grim, though, almost Jacobean in its doom-laden trajectory, and Ritchie casts his movie accordingly, opting for more restrained performers, less likely to summon more flamboyant reflexes.

Five people make a conspiracy, right?

Snake Eyes (1998) (SPOILERS) The best De Palma movies offer a synthesis of plot and aesthetic, such that the director’s meticulously crafted shots and set pieces are underpinned by a solid foundation. That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t a sheer pleasure to be had from the simple act of observing, from De Palma movies where there isn’t really a whole lot more than the seduction of sound, image and movement. Snake Eyes has the intention to be both scrupulously written and beautifully composed, coming after a decade when the director was – mostly – exploring his oeuvre more commercially than before, which most often meant working from others’ material. If it ultimately collapses in upon itself, then, it nevertheless delivers a ream of positives in both departments along the way.

Madam, the chances of bagging an elephant on the Moon are remote.

First Men in the Moon (1964) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen swaps fantasy for science fiction and stumbles somewhat. The problem with his adaptation of popular eugenicist HG Wells’ 1901 novel isn’t so much that it opts for a quirky storytelling approach over an overtly dramatic one, but that it’s insufficiently dedicated to pursuing that choice. Which means First Men in the Moon , despite a Nigel Kneale screenplay, rather squanders its potential. It does have Lionel Jeffries, though.

I’ll look in Bostock’s pocket.

Doctor Who Revelation of the Daleks Lovely, lovely, lovely. I can quite see why Revelation of the Daleks doesn’t receive the same acclaim as the absurdly – absurdly, because it’s terrible – overrated Remembrance of the Daleks . It is, after all, grim, grisly and exemplifies most of the virtues for which the Saward era is commonly decried. I’d suggest it’s an all-time classic, however, one of the few times 1980s Who gets everything, or nearly everything, right. If it has a fault, besides Eric’s self-prescribed “Kill everyone” remit, it’s that it tries too much. It’s rich, layered and very funny. It has enough material and ideas to go off in about a dozen different directions, which may be why it always felt to me like it was waiting for a trilogy capper.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.