Directed by Frank Capra
I read the book Lost Horizon a few years after I read The Good Earth, but it was still a very long time ago. I don’t remember every bit of the plot, but I did like it quite a bit; the adventure appealed to me, as did the idea of a beautiful place of peace. Being a fan of the book and a fan of Frank Capra, I thought the movie would be wonderful. The adventure and the philosophy that I loved in the book were in the movie, but I had a hard time remembering to watch through 1937 glasses. Shangri-La is not a utopia if you watch through 2017 glasses.
So what’s the story? Robert Conway, a British diplomat, is on the last plane out of a war-torn Chinese town with four other people: his brother, George; Lovett, a paleontologist; Barnard, a crook; and Gloria, a prostitute. Instead of heading to Shanghai as expected, the pilot flies the plane deeper into Asia. The plane crash-lands high in the freezing Tibetan mountains, but the group is rescued by a group of people who lead them to the monastery Shangri-La, where everyone is happy and all is well. But all is not as it seems…
The Good: The acting is good for the most part. It’s really quite fun to watch the change in Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), Lovett (Edward Everett Horton, who usually scares me), and Gloria (Isabel Jewell) as they go from frightened, selfish people to people who care about making their world better. Ronald Coleman makes a fine Robert Conway, although I would have liked to see a little more contrast in his character as Shangri-La changes him. That’s the screenwriter’s fault, though. John Howard is miscast as George Conway. He doesn’t even try to do a British accent, even though he is supposed to be the brother of the very British Coleman. That said, Howard did bring a lot of energy to the screen, with his growing impatience a contrast to the others’ peacefulness as everyone else settles in. Sam Jaffe makes a wonderful wise High Lama, even though he was only 46, so the makeup artists did a fantastic job, too.
The production design is great. The designers had to bring the east and west together for Shangri-La, which is in “Tibet” but built by a man from Belgium, with treasures from all over the world inside. The valley needed its own look, too. The end result is beautiful and believably peaceful.
Dmitri Tiomkin wrote a beautiful orchestral score for the film that underscores not only the beauty and peace of the valley but also the mystery and uncertainty that everyone finds there.
The Bad: Jane Wyatt is wooden in her performance as Sondra. She is school-girl giggly when she’s around Conway and sad when she thinks Conway is going. That’s all she’s got. It was a little painful to watch.
Chang is played stiffly by H.B. Warner. It may have been the way he was directed, but almost every time he talks, there’s a pause, almost as if he’s trying to remember his lines. He was nominated for best supporting actor, so some people saw something there. I will freely admit that I am not a professional acting judge, so I could be wrong and the performance could be brilliant, but it annoyed me.
The Ugly: There was nothing really ugly about the movie, except that about seven minutes of the movie are still shots instead of motion picture. The movie was edited from when it was first shown, and the original footage was lost. Film restorers looked in vaults all over the world for the missing minutes. They did find a full sound track and some of the missing moving footage, so they used stills from the filming to fill in the film that was lost. Some of the footage they found, though, was not of the best quality, so the movie is uneven in quality, too. It makes me so sad when movies aren’t taken care of. I hate it when art is lost.
Oscars Won: Best art direction; best film editing
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (H.B. Warner); best sound, recording; best assistant director; best music, score.
Why I would not want to live in the Shangri-La of 1937:
Women have no rights and get very little respect from men.
- Conway asks the High Lama what happens if two men both want the same woman. The Lama replies that their manners are so good, that the man who had the woman first would give her to the second man. No one bothers to ask the woman which man she would rather be with.
- Sondra is teaching a class of children English when a child asks to be taken to the bathroom. As soon as she leaves to help the child, Conway simply dismisses the class without asking Sondra if she is done for the day. He assumes that she would be happy to spend her time with him instead of teaching.
- When Sondra tries to start a philosophical conversation about why people outside of Shangri-La are the way they are, Conway tells Sondra to stop asking why, saying that it is the most annoying question in the English language. He had a chance to actually think about his culture and discuss it with someone who is generally curious, and instead he shuts it down because he is more interested in Sondra physically than he in in honestly answering her questions.
- Barnard takes a shine to Gloria when she stops wearing her makeup, telling her she looks wholesome without and ordering her to never wear it again. When George asks if they would like to leave, Barnard says he isn’t going, and then Gloria says “I’m going to stay, too. Is that right, Barney?” (That’s paraphrased a bit.)
The people of the monastery have no respect for the native people.
- None of the people living in the monastery of Shangri-La are acolytes of the High Lama. Apparently only Europeans and Chang (who is played by a white man) are allowed to study in the monastery and do whatever they so desire, whether it’s playing the piano or riding horses or reading. The only native people living there are the servants. No one thinks to ask if that’s what they want to be doing.
- The people in the valley are basically patted on the heads and told what good people they are. They are not taught what is in the books that are brought into the valley. They farm and mine for the monastery because that’s what they have been taught to do. They are more or less slaves, even though they don’t know it. The High Lama even admits that those who live in the monastery rule those who live in the valley.
- Shangri-La was founded by a Christian missionary whose goal is to have the “Christian ideal” win all over the world. No, he doesn’t teach Christianity, but he also doesn’t draw on any tenants of other religions, including whatever the natives believed before he got there. While not stated, I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t allow the native religion to be followed in the valley.
Okay, rant over. I know that Lost Horizon came out 80 years ago, and I freely acknowledge that values have changed a bit over the years. That’s why it’s so important to try to understand where and when the filmmakers were coming from. You can’t judge art from the past with the values of today.