A movie about paradise in the Himalayas? I wasn’t sure that sounded interesting to me, but since I have recently been watching Ronald Colman films, I thought I would give it a try. But in truth, I have not entirely made up my mind about Frank Capra’s 1937 The Lost Horizon. It looks lovely, is well acted and is an intriguing concept, but seems to have many of the usual pitfalls found in stories about paradise or utopia.
Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is a celebrity in England; a writer and soldier and statesman who will be appointed the Foreign Secretary when he returns from China. But meanwhile, he is in China during the revolution and is trying to get a bunch of European people out of the area. To his chagrin, however, the planes are only for Europeans and the countless Chinese refugees are simply left behind.
On the last plane out of town, there are only a few Europeans left to board: Conway, his brother George (John Howard), paleontologist, Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), on-the-run corrupt financier Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), and Gloria, a young lady who is terminally ill (Isabel Jewell). But unbeknownst to them, their plane has been hijacked and instead of being flown to Shanghai, they are flown towards the Himalayas. The plane crashes and while they are stranded in the snowy mountains trying to decide what to do, they meet a group of people who agree to take them to their home, Shangri-La.
Shangri-La is an apparent paradise and greatly impresses Conway, though the rest of the group is anxious to find a way to return home, especially George. Shangri-La lies between the mountain peaks and is mysteriously protected from the elements. While there is snow all around, Shangri-La is sunny and warm and productively growing things. But it soon becomes apparent that there is more going on then meets the eye.
Above the valley, is a palace where the leader, Chang (H.B. Warner), takes them. It is a magnificent palace, full of rare artifacts and luxury. Chang is rather vague, but eventually Conway manages to learn that he was brought to Shangri-La deliberately – on the strength of his books he’s written that show he’s a dreamer and disillusioned with civilization – and Chang wants him to meet their High Lama (Sam Jaffe)
The High Lama is a Belgian priest who came to Shangri-La several hundred years ago – people age very slowly there, because age is apparently more of a mental state than physical one – and had a vision of civilization destroying itself. Ever since, he’s been collecting artifacts and treasures and bringing it to Shangri-La with the idea that when civilization does destroy itself, Shangri-La will still be there, with all the history and art preserved. Conway experiences what could be called a religious conversion, certainly a moment of enlightenment. It also turns out that the High Lama is dying and wants Conway to take his place leading the community.
Conway also meets Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt), whose parents died near Shangri-La and was raised there by the High Lama since she was a child. They fall in love, naturally. Meanwhile, against all expectations, Lovett, Barnard and Gloria begin to make themselves at home in Shangri-La. Horton as Lovett is the film’s one source of humor and he is an absolute hoot (as he always is). He goes from suspicion to cautious optimism (he keeps a diary and writes down that he feels like sowing a wild oat…or even two). Gloria’s health returns, Barnard begins to unselfishly make plans for improving Shangri-La’s water transportation and Lovett teaches geology. But George is not happy to be the casualty of the venture, stuck there despite his frustration. All the High Lama can say is that it was unfortunate that George is there, but that it is now Conway’s problem (not exactly helpful).
George has also met a young lady, Maria (Margo). But unlike everyone else at Shangri-La, she is not happy and has fallen in love with George. Chang says she can’t leave because she’s over a hundred years old and would quickly age and die if outside Shangri-la. George tries to convince his brother that Chang is lying and get him to leave with him.
The Lost Horizon is certainly an interesting film, almost a beautiful film. But despite how taken Conway is with Shangri-La, there is definitely a dark side. For one, Shangri-La seems to be run mostly by Europeans (with the exception of Chang) and all the happy and productive natives seem to work as their servants. It looks like a European fiefdom. And despite all the culture they are rescuing from the world, the natives don’t seem to be partaking in it, still living in huts and farming while Chang and the other Europeans live in the palace. Hmm. And if it’s such a paradise, why is Margo so desperate to escape?
Shangri-La is also a trap. In that it resembles Brigadoon, actually. It traps you with long life and health and then you can’t leave without losing all those things. Both stories also have a similar ethos; the desire to get away from all the clutter, venality, war, temptations, hollow striving for success and return to a simpler and peaceful life. And like Brigadoon, those people ungrateful enough to scorn the gift they are given simply die. It’s a bit harsh.
It is not entirely clear to me if the audience is meant to draw these conclusions or not. The film ends mostly on a hopeful note of longing, hoping that all people can find their Shangri-La. Whether we are meant to consider that hope a tangible one or merely wish-fulfillment, I’m not sure. Frank Capra films are often like that. He mixes sentiment with an underlying dark view of the world and it’s not easy to parse through the cynicism and hopefulness to get to the core of his point, because he genuinely seems to believe in both at the same time. It seems like a contradiction, though perhaps it could be argued that life really is a contradiction of hope and despair.
It’s a long film – 132 minutes – rather slow moving, though I was never bored despite the extended philosophical discussions that succeed more in aura than in sense. The acting is also excellent, especially by Colman. The Lost Horizon is based on a 1933 novel by James Hilton, who also wrote the books Goodbye, Mister Chips, Random Harvest, and The Story of Dr. Wassail – all of which were turned into movies – and I plan on reading The Lost Horizon very soon. It must be no accident that both the movie and the novel came out in the 1930s, when the entire world was definitely heading towards bloody, destructive war and hatefulness, lending an aura of truth to the High Lama’s vision, though unlike his expectations, the world did not end up destroying itself.
Bu stories about utopia and paradise have always failed to sound like any place I would particularly like to go. People are too diverse and though, theoretically, it might be possible to imagine a world that would make me perfectly happy, I could never imagine a world that would make everyone else happy. And in the attempt to reconcile all people, paradises inevitable wind up inflexible. And they always seem to lack that spark of something, spark of vibrant life, that makes life worth living. Paradises come out sounding a trifle bland or dreamlike.
Though I have speculated that perhaps it is the result of a failure of moral imagination. We are simply too rooted in the world we live in, with all the pain and suffering and hatred, that to strip those factors from our imaginary world leaves us in a state of mental impoverishment. There’s not enough left for us to construct a convincing or interesting world filled with only goodness. In that way, I’ve always found stories about utopias most interesting for what it says about humanity’s incapacity to fully imagine perfection. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist; just that it can’t be imagined.