What a shame.
The sad thing about Lost Horizon is that ten or so minutes of the film are missing. The score is intact, but through years of struggling to piece together surviving film, only ten minutes could not be recovered. The result is a little jarring, but you have to respect the film preservationists who worked to save the movie some credit – only losing ten minutes out of 130 minutes total is pretty darn good.
Based on the book by James Hilton, Lost Horizon tells the story of a group of people fleeing a revolution in a small area in China who have to fly over the Himalayas. Their plane crash lands and they are rescued by a group of people who take them to a strange place called Shangri-La — a place where aging slows to a crawl and the inhabitants live in peace and harmony. The intrepid group of travelers has no idea what to make of this. Some are confused and one, George Conway, is perfectly content to stay. Conway quickly discovers they were brought to Shangri-La for an express purpose, one that involves him.
At the time, this was one of the most expensive movies ever made. It shows, especially in the sets, which are amazing.
What’s impressive about Lost Horizon is the fact that Frank Capra directed it and it feels oddly not like Capra did it, in contrast to his other works. In fact, Capra struggled greatly from what I’ve read to get Lost Horizon made.
Lost Horizon presents the utopian ideal and also seeks, in a way, to depict why people reject it. In fact, you could probably best describe the entire thing as an interpretation of sorts of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in a way — enlightened versus unenlightened and the schism that arises therein. It’s pretty heady at times, since Conway is given two very black and white kind of choices: stay in Shangri-La or go.
Conway distinctly understands and loves Shangri-La, while the others cannot understand the inherent ideas in Shangri-La, nor can they accept them. The inhabitants’ way of life is so foreign to the other travelers that they refuse to accept any of it as truth.
The one Capra-esque feel it has to it is the “man with the world on his shoulders”, a la It’s A Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Conway is the one reasonable traveler out of the group, and the one, in the end, who has the best understanding of what Shangri-La is all about.
As with any Capra movie, it’s beautifully lit and wonderfully staged. And more than anything, Jane Wyatt and Ronald Colman really do a fantastic job. I don’t feel very strongly for quite a bit of the supporting cast, but Wyatt and Colman are worth the proverbial price of admission alone, especially Wyatt, who was a surprise.
Even with the missing reels, it’s a real treat (and not just for the scene where you figure out Conway’s love interest, played by a strong Jane Wyatt, has figured out how to make music all day by tying whistles to pigeons) and an excellent film. It’s an absolute shame that the ravages of time (and according to Wikipedia, Capra himself) destroyed so much of the film, but what we do have left is well worth the viewing.