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USA 1937
Directed by
Frank Capra
132 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Lost Horizon

This adventure/romance/fantasy/morality play, based on a novel by James Hilton, is an oddity in producer-director Frank Capra’s filmography and a far from successful entry at that.

Ronald Colman plays fêted British diplomat and future Foreign Secretary, Robert Conway, whose plane crashes in the Himalayas while fleeing an anti-White rebellion in China. On board with him are his eager younger brother, George (John Howard), a pernickety paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), a businessman (Thomas Mitchell) on the lam, and an “adventuress” (Isabel Jewel). They are found by a group of locals who take them to Shangri-La. a valley hidden deep within the mountains where life is without cares.  There he meets a beautiful woman (Jane Wyatt) and the High Llama (Sam Jaffe) who anoints Conway as his successor because of his visionary politics.  George, however, is certain that they are being held for some nefarious purpose and persuades Robert to escape with him and a woman, Maria (Margot), who claims she is also being held against her will.

Perhaps this yarn read better on the page or perhaps the notion of some mythical eastern Eden had more willing believers back then with one World War gone and another on the, so to speak, horizon, but  today it is not easy to swallow (for example: not only is the initiatory plane crash remarkably soft but where was the pilot intending to land?; why is Maria so keen to escape the idyllic life of Shangri-La?;  what were the chances that Robert would encounter a beautiful woman keen to reciprocate his affections?; and, more generally, why and how did the High Llama concoct, let alone bring off such an elaborate scheme. And so on and so forth)

Dated technical elements, like the obvious painted-on-glass backdrops, aside the envisioning of the mountain Utopia fails to persuade with the llamasery a kind of Greco-Roman-Indo-Moderne pile full of what looks like cast-offs from a fusty 19th century  provincial museum.  H.B. Warner and Sam Jaffe as wise Orientals fall well short of the mark of authenticity. Horton, who rolls out his standard dithering comedic persona is an unnecessary and incongruous embellishment to the simplistic story and Mitchell not much better. It is, however Howard, who periodically bursts into fits of overwrought emotionality, who grates.All up, Capra just hasn't found the way to effectively tell Hilton's story.

Much touted in its days as a marquee production (it cost its studio, Columbia Pictures, $3 million, three quarters of its annual budget ) there is a complete failure to awe even if one can see in it a precursor to the sci-fi fantasy genre that became so popular in the 1970s (it was remade in 1973 with a solid cast but, apparently, awful results) but in itself for most it will be at best a curio.  

FYI: Almost immediately after its initial release, the film was edited considerably by Columbia and over the years re-released in various progressively shorter, versions. The restored version has its original 132 running time with a complete  audio track and six minutes of missing visuals replaced by stills.




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