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Patrick Schoenmaker

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Lost Horizon

Released by Columbia Pictures - 1937

Directed by: Frank Capra
Story by: James Hilton (novel)
Screenplay by: Robert Riskin & Sidney Buchman
Produced by: Frank Capra

Ronald Colman .... Robert Conway
Jane Wyatt .... Sondra
Edward Everett Horton .... Alexander Lovett
John Howard .... George Conway
Thomas Mitchell .... Henry Barnard
Margo .... Maria


Lost 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.

Conway entering
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 China.
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.

Shangri-La architecture.

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.

Sondra with Conway.

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.

Lost 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 spell.

Conway & friends
leaving Sangri-La.
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," he says.
"Is there anything more pitiful? A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other, compelled by an orgy of greed and brutality."

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 Jared)


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