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Lost Horizon – James Hilton

71lMxC8oPCLThe primary emotion I got from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon was weariness and longing, a longing for rest from a seething, changing, chaotic world. The novel was written in 1933 – certainly a year portending massive upheaval and violence – and was a success, especially in America.

The book is framed as a book within a book. Two former schoolfellows meet while traveling in Asia and one of them tells the other of a curious story he heard from a man named Hugh Conway, who they both knew at school and greatly admired. But Hugh Conway never lived up to the expectations many people had of him while he was at school. He was brilliant and a natural leader, but after WWI he was not the same man and settled into a career as a British civil servant in Asia.

During the revolution in China, he is charged with getting people out of Baskul, but on the last plane out there are only four people on it: Conway, a young British civil servant named Mallinson, a missionary, Miss Brinklow, and an American financier named Barnard. The plane is supposed to take them to Peshawar, but is instead hijacked and crashes in the Tibetan mountains. They are met by a man named Chang, who takes them to Shangri-la, a lamasery overlooking a village that is nestled between mountain peaks and is protected from the elements. It is so far out of the way that it almost never receives visitors.

The book is constructed somewhat like a mystery. Who are these people who live in the lamasery? Did they deliberately bring that plane to Tibet? Are they trying to keep them in Shangri-la? What is the purpose of Shangri-la? Will they stay or try to escape? But it is a mild mystery, very relaxing to contemplate. When Hugh Conway describes the affect Shangri-la has on him as “its atmosphere soothed while it’s mystery stimulated,” he could have been describing the book. There’s something about the atmosphere of the book that has a similar affect. There is mystery to interest, but it does not barrel the reader along at a breathless pace. It is a restful book to read.

Mallinson is crazy to get away. He has a fiance and family in London and a life he wants to return to. But to his consternation, the rest of the group is not quite so eager to leave. Miss Brinklow is content to continue her work as a missionary in Shangri-la and begins learning Tibetan. Barnard is on the run from the police and has been chased all over the world for financial malfeasance (he lost a packet of money during the economic crash) and finds himself unexpectedly at peace in Shangri-la, where there is truly no stress or worry or distractions. And Hugh Conway especially finds himself content, philosophically content as well

Frank Capra's 1937 adaptation of Lost Horizon

Frank Capra’s 1937 adaptation of Lost Horizon

Shangri-la does not espouse a particular religion. It’s a blend of Christianity and Buddhism, with an Aristotelian outlook of moderation in all things. The primary goal of Shangri-la is, as the high lama tells Conway, to be a haven for that time when civilization destroys itself. They hope that Shangri-la will still exist, having preserved art, books and culture, and will be able to help the world rebuild. Conway is keenly interested, intelligent, and deeply sympathetic and the high lama begins to hope that Conway will take his place as high lama when he is dead.

But Lost Horizon is not a detailed suggestion for what a utopia should or would look like. It’s more like an imagination of what kind of an environment would produce rest from the world. What is the antithesis of noise and destruction? Conway thinks a lot about the dissolution of the world. “It fitted Baskul and Delhi and London, war-making and empire-building, consulates and trade concessions and dinner parties at Government Houses; there was a reek of dissolution over all that recollected world.”

The high lama tells Conway that “he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army…” Conway talks about having spent all his passion a long time ago, during WWI, and now there’s nothing left in him. He longs for the quiet, dispassionate philosophical and aesthetic life that Shangri-la offers. It’s the opposite of a passionate engagement with life and is an embrace of the mind. “His liking for Chinese art was an affair of the mind; in a world of increasing noise and hugeness, he turned in private to gentle, precise, and miniature things.”

Conway reflects a profound and premature weariness that is common in the generation that saw WWI. Mallinson, on the other hand, did not experience WWI and is bursting with life and energy. He sees the other side of Shangri-la that Conway does not. He sees it as a prison (and it’s true – people are not allowed to leave). And Conway is sympathetic to Mallinson and feels fond of him, because he sees himself in Mallinson before WWI.

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in The Lost Horizon

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in Lost Horizon

Another interesting thing about Shangri-la is that it seems to be specifically for people who are world-weary. There are several lamas there – like Conway – who were busy and active while young and enjoy settling down as they age (you age very slowly in Shangri-la). But for people who do not get a chance to enjoy their youth, it drives them wild. Mallinson is like that, and also a Chinese woman named Lo-Tsen who lives at Shangri-la. She looks 17, but Chang tells Conway that she is really almost a hundred. She was found near Shangri-la when she was 17. She is lovely and the lamas find her an aesthetic presence who thy love to contemplate and listen to while she plays the harpsichord. Even Conway falls in love with her, though in a more aesthetic way. But she loves Mallinson, and not aesthetically.

Spoilers! Ultimately, Conway makes the sacrifice and agrees to help Mallinson and Lo-Tsen escape. It is his world-weary way of acknowledging that Mallinson should have the right to live his life. The irony is that it doesn’t seem to work – the man Conway later tells the story to does not know what happened to Mallinson – and Mallinson and Lo-Tsen appear to have died. And in a further irony, if Conway had managed to save Mallinson, it would have only been so Mallinson could have fought in another war, WWII, and perhaps have ended up like Conway. 1933 was a rotten year and Lost Horizon taps into that weariness from the past and fear of the future. What Lost Horizon really reminded me of is when I have a bad dream and wonder to myself if there is someplace I can go to wait out the bad dream until I wake up. That is what the book Shangri-la is like, a place to wait out a bad dream.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2015 in Books

 

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The Lost Horizon (1937) – Paradise Never Quite Found

download (1)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.

Horton, Howard and Colman look out the window of their plane and wonder where they are going

Horton, Howard and Colman look out the window of their plane and wonder where they are going

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).

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H.B. Warner, Isabel Jewell, Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell, Ronald Colman – they want to know what, exactly, is going on

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.

Conway talks with the High Lama

Conway talks with the High Lama

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.

Shangri-La

Shangri-La

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.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2015 in Movies

 

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