Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lost Horizon: Shangri-La Found!

Lost Horizon: Poster with Ronald Colman | A Constantly Racing Mind"...yes, I believe because I want to believe." ~ Robert Conway

I watch a lot of films in a year, both old and very recent films.  It is always a pleasure to screen, ponder, and review a film like "Lost Horizon."  Released in 1937 and staring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt, "Lost Horizon" deals with the age old story of paradise found, and then lost.  Adapted from James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Frank Capra ("It’s A Wonderful Life") and screen writer Robert Riskin take some liberties with the original story in adapting it for a Depression era movie going audience.  "Lost Horizon" is one of those films that provide a glimpse into the thoughts, morals, and style of the period of time between two great wars.  In the 70’s, while restoring the film, Sony realized that seven minutes of the film were either lost or deteriorated beyond being usable, and substituted still-photographs in their stead. "Lost Horizon" is a feel good film of the 30s which not only carries a message, but also provides today’s audience with some thoughts about war, peace, and the meaning of life.

In Baskul China, during the Japanese Invasion, Robert Conway (Coleman), a British diplomat, WWI hero, and book author is working to evacuate the area’s white population. Arranging cargo planes to evacuate the 90 or so British and American citizens, Robert Conway, along with his brother George (John Howard), Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), and Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell), escape in the last plane out of Baskul and bound for Shanghai.  James Hilton’s book has only four passengers Conway, Barnard, Mallinson, and Miss Brinklow, a missionary.  The reason I believe that director Frank Capra wanted to add and change some characters in the film version have to do with trying to create a film that would appeal to an American audience with all the race bending that Americans were used to in that time period.  Lovett was added for comic relief, while the characters of Sondra (Wyatt) and the role of Maria (Margo) were one character in Hilton’s novel named Lo-Tsen, a Manchu woman.  I am sure with Chinese Communism on the rise; studio heads at Columbia were not too keen on portraying an interracial relationship between the two lead characters.

Lost Horizon: Highjacked | A Constantly Racing MindThe first act resides primarily on a DC 2 cargo plane hijacked by a man we find out later is a native of the legendary Shangri-La.  The characters not realizing until the next day that they are not en-route to Shanghai where a boat is ready to steam away with Robert Conway, the hero of Baskul.  Instead, the passengers find, through some comic bantering between Barnard and Lovett or Lovey as Barnard insists on teasing him that they have traveled west towards Tibet, and not east, in the direction of Shanghai.  Much deliberation ensues while the Conway brothers banter back and forth trying to figure out the best way of dealing with their situation.  George Conway replaces the Mallinson character of the book, a whiny youth of about 25 years-old, impetuous, intolerant, and selfish.  His brother Robert, on the other hand, is calm, peaceful, and wise.  Gloria is plagued with Tuberculosis, and she is dying.  A lot of dialog take place on the plane, setting the mood, and the mindset of the characters for the rest of the film.  On board the plane, director Capra gives us a glimpse of each character, who are these people? What type of person do they seem to be?  Most importantly, these glimpses provide us with a baseline for each of them so we can see what changes, if any, come about with these characters by the end of the film.  Robert Conway, the de facto leader of the group, because of his position with the British diplomatic service, is actually taking the events in stride, and quite calmly.  George is panicking, Gloria is hysterical, Barnard is just happy to be alive, and Lovett, is indignant.  After a quick refueling stop, the pilot takes his victims on a harrowing flight over the Himalayas. After some close calls, he finally crash lands the plane near the base of a mountain range.  The pilot dies after revealing that there is a Lamasery just over the mountains in the valley below.  George takes the pilot’s gun and hides it for later.

Lost Horizon: Shangri-La | A Constantly Racing Mind
The second act proceeds after the survivors determine the seriousness of their situation.  They wait a day before seeking the safety of the Lamasery.  However, the survivors are rescued the next day by a group of travelers from Shangri-La.  The trail to Shangri-La is hard, they must travel single file, and their rescuers tie themselves together to keep from getting separated.  They reach a hole in the wall, and when they enter, they find a beautiful, quiet valley.  Entering the sunlit valley the passengers are surprised to find modern western style buildings and the Lamasery comes equipped with all modern conveniences.  Their host is a young man who seems older than he should be, or a well persevered older man, by the name of Chang.  Chang is a polite host; however, while providing every comfort to his guests, he is vague when it comes to arranging the travelers’ passage back to their homes.  When Lovett tells Chang over dinner, that he wishes to return to civilization, Chang’s reply is subtle, but unnerving.  Chang says, “Are you so certain you are away from it?”  The library at Shangri-La contains great books from all civilizations, beautiful artworks, sculptures, painting, and music.  As it turns out, Robert Conway was the intended kidnap victim, and the rest are just collateral damage.  Chang explains the creation of the valley over two hundred years ago.  The valley was found by a Belgian priest, named Perrault.  Building the Lamasery and directing the accumulation of art and knowledge, Perrault fearing another great, catastrophic war between men, decided to create a haven for men and women who are willing to seek a higher order of existence.  To emphasize the magic of the valley, Frank Capra has Chang explain that Perrault had to amputate his own leg due to a severe wound.  If he hadn’t cut off his own leg, Chang goes on to mention that the wound would have healed by itself.

Moderation is a major theme of both the book and the film.  Moderation in all things, Chang tells Robert Conway.  The women of Shangri-La are moderately chaste, the men moderately honest, and the people are moderately happy.  Are the people also moderately moderate?  Conway asks Chang.  Being moderately active with moderate amounts of stress create an atmosphere that reveals that the magical valley of Shangri-La, gives them a certain amount of longevity.  Conway was brought to Shangri-La at the request of Sondra who herself was brought to the valley as a young girl many, many years ago and raised by the High Lama.  As for the rest of the passengers, while spending a short time in this virtual paradise, Gloria starts recovering her color and strength.  Barnard confesses to losing a great deal of stockholders money during the stock market crash in the fall of 1929, and is being branded a swindler.  His real name is Chalmers and he is in no hurry in getting back to civilization.  Lovett, stuffy by nature, holds out a little longer, but finding opportunities to contribute his skills and knowledge to the community and finding acceptance with the children of Shangri-La, not only accepts the name Lovey, that his former nemesis Barnard gave him, but he too decides he has no intention of leaving either.  On the other hand, George, Robert’s younger brother is desperate to leave.  George has the pilot’s gun, and in a fit of desperation starts shooting the place up while demanding answers.

Lost Horizon: Ronald Coleman - Jane Wyatt | A Constantly Racing Mind While trying to calm his brother down, Conway sees Chang in the hallway and calls him over to the room, where the group is having an impromptu meeting about their situation of possibly that they are, in fact; captives.  Chang responds by letting Robert know that the High Lama sent him to find Conway and invite him to a meeting with the High Lama.  Of the high Lama (Sam Jaffe), we know that he is very old, and by the title we assume him to be a native Tibetan.  What we find is the cinematic ancestor of Yoda.  Old, wise and wrinkled, the High Lama sits in a chair and welcomes Conway.  Conway realizing that the High Lama is missing a leg comes to the conclusion that he is indeed meeting with the 300 hundred year-old Father Perrault.  James Hilton, in his novel, describes many meetings between Conway and Perrault, but in the film we are limited to only a few meetings.  Conway was brought to Shangri-La, because like the 800 year-old Jedi Master, Perrault too will die soon.  Sondra, who has read Conway’s books, and likes his philosophy, decides that he is the man to take over for the High Lama and lead Shangri-La into the 20th century and beyond.  Conway accepts the challenge and decides to go on with his life in the valley and make the best of it.  He starts off by chasing after Sondra and the beginnings of a relationship start to bud.  George is captivated by a Russian girl by the name of Maria (Margo) and although moody, and anxious to leave, George too starts a relationship with this woman.  Barnard and Gloria seem to be getting along well.  Gloria blooms as her health returns and with the constant praise and attention of Barnard, the two seem to drift together as a couple.  Lovett seems to be the stereotypical confirmed bachelor and is happy to pursue his hobbies amidst and with the locals.

Spoiler alert: Much has been said about "Lost Horizon" over the years.  However, if you want to reading until you watch this excellent film, then I would stop here if I were you.

Act three begins about the time that the High Lama dies while Conway is present.  At this point, the mantle of leadership falls on Conway, The question is, will he do his duty to the Lamasery, or will he be drawn to do his duty as his brother’s keeper?  Within hours of Perrault’s death, George approaches Robert and informs him that he is leaving immediately.  George already asked the others to join him in his escape, but they are too happy in Shangri-La to leave.  Conway believes it is madness to leave, but sees that his brother is determined.  George tells his brother that the porters are waiting for them about five miles away from the Lamasery.  Maria paid the price in gold to hire them as guides and to escort them out of the valley and down into civilization.  Conway is in disbelief.  He knows that Maria arrived at Shangri-La a long time ago and is actually a very old woman.  Leaving the valley would cause her age to catch up to her in a very short space of time, causing her death.

Lost Horizon: Inside the city of Shangri-La | A Constantly Racing Mind

In the Bible we are told that in the Garden of Eden it is the deceit of a woman that causes Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise.  In "Lost Horizon," Maria’s deceit causes George’s and possibly Robert’s undoing.  Confronted with what Robert thinks are the facts, Maria tells him to his face that his information are the jealous lies that Chang told to keep her there.  Torn between duty to the future, and duty to his brother, Robert chooses his brother, with full intentions of returning after his brother is safe.  Man has searched for the Garden of Eden since the fall, and still has not been able to return.  Why would Conway be able to return after willfully leaving of his own accord?  The three set out to leave the peaceful valley, walking past the High Lama’s funeral procession, heading towards the narrow mountain pass, ready to meet their Sherpa guides.  Frantically following behind the trio, trying to stop them, in tears is Sondra.  Conway, as he is leaving the peaceful valley and right before he turns to face the cold, dangerous world beyond, stops, and turns, looks back once again into the valley.  The audience, hopes for just a moment that he will stay long enough for Sondra to catch up and stop him.  He does pause, but not long enough, he treks out into the snow with Maria and his brother, missing Sondra’s pleas and tears by just a few moments.

The trek down the mountain is arduous and takes a toll on Maria.  Unable to keep up because she is becoming weaker by the moment, the guides pull ahead and taunt the foreigners with leaving them behind.  Why not?  They have already been paid.  Another theme that Capra and Riskin introduce to the screenplay that is not mentioned in the novel is that of instant Karma.  The porters have taken to firing their weapons at Maria and the Conway brothers.  Robert is thankful that they are aiming for them, because of the wind; the bullets are going far astray of their intended targets.  The rifles not only fire bullets but those bullets create a loud explosive sound that sets off the avenging avalanche that saves the trio and at the same time sets the moral scales back to even by killing the traitorous guides.  Continuing their trek without the Sherpa, the three take shelter in a cave. Seeing Maria for the first time since their departure, George realizes his folly.  Maria is in fact an old woman and has died.  In a mad rush of insanity that one only finds in classic films of the past, George runs out of the cave and off the cliff to his death.  Instead of returning immediately to Shangri-La, retracing his steps, Conway instead continues down the mountain.  Scenes of Conway coming down the mountain depict the dangerous, treacherous, journey and the many falls that Conway takes along the way.  Conway is found by a search party, and we find out by way of epilogue that he has lost all memory of Shangri-La and willing departs for England on a ship.

Like all humankind we seem to have some sort of genetic memory of Eden, Utopia, Atlantis, or even Shangri-La.  It sits deep within us just below the surface, like a forgotten song faintly remembered.  Conway’s memories of Shangri-La return, and he jumps ship.  For ten months, he begs, borrows, and steals his way back to the borders of Tibet and to the mountain ranges that protect fair Shangri-La.  For ten months he attempts the pass, but nature forces him back each time until finally, he never returns.  Does Conway make it back to Shangri-La?  Or does he die like most everyone else who have ever attempted the search for Paradise.  The novel leaves this question open to the reader to draw their own conclusions.  While Frank Capra, like the lovely masseuse who likes to leave her customers with a happy ending, does so by providing one for his audience.

Lost Horizon: Plane crash | A Constantly Racing Mind
It is my firm belief that the producers and writers of the 2004 ABC television series "Lost," based or at least took some initial concepts from "Lost Horizon."  Both start with a group of
unwitting passengers on a plane who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are brought to a secluded magical place.  Both the island of "Lost" and the valley of Shangri-La have special healing properties.  Note that John Locke is able to walk again upon arriving at the island, and Rose’s cancer goes into remission.  Compare these incidents to Gloria and her healing of T.B. and that if Father Perrault did not cut off his leg, it would have healed on its own.  Like Chang and the High Lama, both Jacob and Richard Alpert are both very old men.  Leaving the island permanently would cause them to age and die.  All the modern comforts of home are on the island, located at the island’s testing stations compared to the modern toilets, baths, and the complete library at the Lamasery of Shangri-La.  As the "Lost" series progressed, the writers took various tangents with their story, but the basic concept of the island being a sort of Shangri-La still remains.  

Frank Capra is a masterful story teller, and with the restoration of "Lost Horizon," by Sony and its subsequent re-release on DVD, this film still retains many ideals and concepts that today’s audience will identify with.  As the world is in constant turmoil, the idea of having a refuge from the violence in the world is comforting to most of us.  Creating our own little Shangri-La in our own homes is not a bad idea either.  So, take a couple of hours, pop some popcorn, get your family together on a lazy weekend, and watch "Lost Horizon." 

Movie Data
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Mystery
Year:  1937
Staring: Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, John Howard, Sam Jaffe, Thomas Mitchell, Margo, Isabel Jewell, H.B. Warner
Director: Frank Capra
Producer(s): Frank Capra
Writer: Robert Riskin, James Hilton
Rating: PG
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Date:9/1/1937

Originally published on 4/13/2011 by Robert Barbere on Yahoo Voices