Long before there was Lost, there was Lost Horizon!
Much like the famous television show, the 1937 film Lost Horizon begins with a group of strangers on an airplane. They’re people from all walks of life, all with their separate hopes and dreams. When the plane crashes, they find themselves stranded in an uncharted land and, much like the Lost castaways, they are shocked to discover that they are not alone. Instead, they’ve found a semi-legendary place that is ruled over by a man who has lived for centuries. Much as in Lost, some want to return to civilization while others want to remain in their new home. Both Lost and Lost Horizon even feature a terminally ill woman who starts to recover her health after becoming stranded.
Of course, in Lost, everyone was just flying from Australia to America. In Lost Horizon, everyone is trying to escape the Chinese revolution. Among the passengers on the plane: diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), his irresponsible brother, George (John Howard), a con artist named Henry (Thomas Mitchell), a paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), and the very ill Gloria (Isabel Jewell).
While Lost featured a plane crash on a tropical island, Lost Horizon features a plane crash in the Himalayas. In Lost, the sinister Others sent spies to infiltrate the survivors. In Lost Horizon, the mysterious Chang (H.B. Warner) appears and leads the survivors to a place called Shangri-La.
Shangi-La is a lush and idyllic valley that has somehow flourished in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. The happy inhabitants inform the survivors that they never get sick and they never fight. They’re led by the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), a philosopher who explains that he is several hundred years old. The valley is full of magic and the Lama tells the survivors that Shangri-La is their new home.
Now, I’ve seen enough horror movies that I spent most of Lost Horizon waiting for the Lama to suddenly reveal that he was a vampire or an alien or something. Whenever anyone in a movie seems to be too good to be true, that usually means that he’s going to end up killing someone about an hour into the story. But that didn’t happen in Lost Horizon. Instead, the Lama is just as wise and benevolent as he claims to be and Shangri-La is as much of a paradise as everyone assumes. I guess we’re just naturally more cynical in 2018 than people were in 1937.
Of course, the Lama isn’t immortal. Not even the magic of Shangri-La can prevent the inevitably of death. The Lama is looking for a successor. Could one of the survivors be that successor? Perhaps. For instance, Robert absolutely loves Shangri-La. Of course, his brother George is determined to return to the real world. He has fallen in love with one of the inhabitants of Shagri-La and plans to take her with him, despite the Lama’s warning about trying to leave…
Frank Capra was a huge fan of James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizon, and he spent three years trying to bring it to the big screen. Based on Capra’s previous box office successes, Colombia’s Harry Cohn gave Capra a budget of $1.25 million to bring his vision of Shangri-La to life. That may not sound like much today but, at the time, that made Lost Horizon the most expensive movie ever made. The production was a notoriously difficult one. (The original actor cast as the elderly Lama was so excited to learn he had been selected that he dropped dead of a heart attack.) As a result of both its ornate sets and Capra’s perfectionism, the film soon went overbudget. When Capra finally delivered a first cut, it was over 6 hours long. Capra eventually managed to edit it down to 210 minutes, just to then have Harry Cohn order another hour taken out of the film. When Lost Horizon was finally released, it had a running time of 132 minutes.
Seen today, Lost Horizon is definitely an uneven work. With all the cutting and editing that went on, it’s hard to guess what Capra’s original vision may have been but, in the final version, much more time is devoted to the characters discussing the philosophy of Shangri-La than to the characters themselves. (It’s always good to see Thomas Mitchell but he really doesn’t get much to do.) Since you never really feel like you know what any of these characters were like outside of Shangi-La, it’s hard to see how being in Shagri-La has changed them. You just have to take their word for it. That said, it’s a visually stunning film. Capra may have gone over budget creating the look of Shangri-La but it was money well-spent. If I ever find myself in a magic village, I hope it looks half as nice as the one in Lost Horizon.
Despite all of the drama that went on behind the scenes and a rather anemic box office reception, Lost Horizon was nominated for best picture. However, it lost to The Life of Emile Zola.