Horizon is a widely acclaimed and much-beloved
classic adventure based on a book by James Hilton.
The story centers around Shangri-La, a hidden
Garden of Eden possibly accessible in the remote
Himalayas. In Shangri-La there is no war, crime,
inhibition or greed and life expectancy surpasses
a hundred in a state of tranquil bliss, surrounded
by serene beauty and artistic treasures.
the passenger plane.
Ronald Colman (The
Prisoner of Zenda), well-polished adventurer
and in fact real life war hero, plays Robert Conway.
Conway is a famous author and idealistic foreign
diplomat first seen rescuing westerners in war-torn
The opening offers action-packed excitement as
Conway braves an angry mob and burning buildings
to get his escapees on board a small passenger
plane. The group includes Conway’s brother,
a talkative swindler, a paleontologist and a beautiful
though embittered girl. Little does Conway realize
that his trusted pilot has been knocked out and
replaced. The early scene of a high-jacked plane
in Indiana Jones and
the Temple of Doom seems a certain nod
to Lost Horizon’s
also high-jacked and redirected flight.
When their plane crashes in
the high, uncharted Himalayas mystery takes over
from action. They are led to Shangri-La and enter
the kingdom like skeptical invaders of a fairy-tale.
The pace slows and the camera moves in to close-ups
asking viewers to pay close attention to multiple
reels of exposition.
As Conway confesses comfort and familiarity with
the place, he becomes an attendant to the lofty
philosophies and explanations of the High Lama,
founder and ruler of Shangri-La.
One cannot say enough good
things about Ronald Colman. He certainly fattens
the book of great actors from Hollywood’s
golden years. Thomas Mitchell, one of my favorite
character actors plays the swindler soon reformed
by his new environment. Jane Wyatt plays Sondra,
a long-time resident of Shangri-La and avid reader
of Conway’s books. She’s the one responsible
for luring him to their peaceful refuge. Her role
offers little to do but look gorgeous and she
pulls it off quite well.
Horizon’s status as a classic adventure
has been undisputed for seventy years. An extraordinary
amount of care went into making this production
(and restoration) and very early in the film all
the nuts and bolts and bleached cornflakes and
thoughtful performances pay off in casting a peculiar
However, the moral merits of
the story can hardly be called inspiring. It is
important to remember the year of release was 1937.
The entire world was in a desperate situation with
disaster rapidly approaching. It is hardly surprising
and wholly forgivable to find a story expressing
deep cynicism about mankind’s future. Nevertheless,
some viewers today may find it alarming that the
film’s ultimate premise seems to suggest it
is better to run from a world in peril than try
to save it. Movie fans will be especially surprised
given that the director is none other than that
famous crusader of idealistic sentiment Frank Capra
(Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,
It’s a Wonderful
Life). Hardcore Lost
Horizon fans may scream that the intention
was to offer a promissory glimpse at heaven so that
death is not so feared. But if the High Lama represents
some heavenly figure, he certainly does not express
much faith in his Earthly subjects. In fact, he
has disdain for them. "Look at the world today,"
"Is there anything more pitiful? A scurrying
mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong
against each other, compelled by an orgy of greed
Unfortunately we can only guess
at the reasons why Conway confesses to Sondra
that he previously felt empty but now, in Shangri-La,
having run away from all that saving people business,
he feels surprisingly fulfilled.
Ambitious, fascinating, entertaining and not just
a little haunting, Lost Horizon
ultimately offers questions, not answers. It plays
out like a black and white dream re-imagining
the world’s possibilities with an unsettling
view of a retreat back to Eden. (Stephen