Lost Horizon – The Most Overrated Movie of 1937

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt try to breath life into "Lost Horizon"

Frank Capra made some of the best – and some of the most mediocre – movies of the 1930s.  Even his mediocre movie like It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It with You had some redeeming qualities.  Lost Horizon is one of his few complete flops.  It’s a movie that is insulting on so many levels that it’s impossible to take its good intentions seriously.  It’s one of those Utopia movies that we always seem to get in troubled times and presents a vision of mankind living in blissful harmony, without conflict, without anger, without want, without any of the struggles that have essentially come to define humanity.  But, like most of the movies or books in this genre, it is frustratingly vague on how we get there so it is useless, both as a possible blueprint for the future and as a form of entertainment.

Capra specialized in stories that highlighted the power of one man, but this movie undercuts everything he did before and after.  Not only can one common man not make a difference in the world, but a powerful man – soon to be the British Foreign Secretary – can’t either.  The only answer, according to Capra, is to retreat to some mythical fairy land of magic and harmony:  Shangri-La.  Unfortunately he doesn’t leave us coordinates, so for those of us stuck in reality we’ll just have to suffer through whatever the world has up its sleeve for us.

The story, such as it is, follows several Westerners as they flee from an advancing Chinese warlord’s army.  The passengers include the above mentioned soon-to-be Foreign Secretary Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) and his brother George (John Howard), a prickly paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), Gloria, a sassy American (Isabel Jewel), and con man Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell).  Their flight, however, is hijacked and they end up crashing hundreds, if not thousands, of miles off course in an isolated region of the Himalayas.  They are rescued from certain death by residents of a nearby city, unknown to the world, known as Shangri-La.  Conway and the others marvel at Shangri-La’s beauty, mild weather, happy residents, and simply philosophy that privileges courtesy over desire and moderation over excess.  They are also stunned by the valley’s inexplicable curative and rejuvenating properties: no one seems to grow old or get sick, even Gloria, recently given months to live begins to recover.  Not all are enchanted however.  Robert’s brother George, given to touches of hysteria, questions everything and believes nothing.  He is so much a product of modern Western culture that perfection is unbelievable to him.

Well, it’s unbelievable to me too.  As a movie it fails completely.  Everyone spends so much time being in awe, they never get around to doing much.  Capra manufactures some conflict with George’s unconvincing hysterics, but in the end it means little.  He leaves Shangri-La – big deal.  By the time his life is in danger he’s alienated the audience so much that we don’t care a fig for him.  There’s a tepid romance between Romald Colman and Jane Wyatt, but it feels tacked on, completely unrelated to anything else going on.  And that’s the entire movie.  There isn’t anything or anyone we genuinely care about.  It’s just a tour through a utopian community and anyone who has read Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Edward Bellamy, or Ayn Rand can tell you, that’s a snoozer.

Yes, it sounds impressive to undergrads who don’t know any better to embrace Bellamy’s classless society or, on the opposite extreme, Rand’s promotion of greed as the driver of innovation.  But they, and every other Utopian writer, actually say very little that’s useful.  In the end all of them, even Bellamy who I admire, are probably not much more credible than your crackpot uncle who can tell you how to fix all the world’s problems over a turkey dinner.

So I suppose we’re supposed to take Shangri-La as a model, but the governing principle of the place is so mushy-headed and vague that it feels more like reading the New Age-y goofiness of James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy.  Without conflict everyone is happy.  Wonderful, but how do we remove conflict from society without living deep in the woods like Ted Kaczynski (and look how well that turned out)?  They value moderation and courtesy.  If two men want a woman, to be courteous and preserve peace, the one who wants her less bows out and lets the other have her.  What kind of hokum is that?  Was there a writer anywhere – in any time or place – who actually believed this nonsense was practical?  How do we determine who wants her less?  Oh, and doesn’t the woman get a say in the matter?   Utopias always seem to be utopias for the guy writing about the place, not so much for everyone else.

Lost Horizon falls into the same traps that More, Rand, Bellamy, and Redfield have: it promotes a simplistic fix for the world’s problems.  But the movie doesn’t even really believe its own sappy philosophy because, according to the movie, Shangri-La’s way of life is not exportable to the rest of the world.  This flies in the face of what Capra championed in so many of his other movies that one has to wonder what attracted him to the book.  The idea that man can live in perfect harmony is warm and cozy, but spouting unimaginative and – frankly – condescending platitudes does little more than highlight the arrogance, however well-meaning, of authors of utopian fantasies, like Lost Horizon.  Instead of getting wrapped up in characters or plot, we’re supposed to be swept away by the ideas, but Lost Horizon doesn’t have any ideas to do any substantial sweeping.  I have never understood why this movie enjoys such high esteem.  I know some readers of this blog are fans of it.  I would appreciate an explanation.




Filed under 1937, Yearly Best Pictures

12 responses to “Lost Horizon – The Most Overrated Movie of 1937

  1. Hi, I’m going to comment here for the first time since I discovered your blog via Wonders and your comment on my blog (now I have something to say, kinda).
    I haven’t seen this movie… entirely, I remember watching the second half of this movie on television with my dad and my brother when we had cable (maybe on TCM, but even with that I’m not really sure).
    Memories are vague about this one, I don’t remember much of it, and maybe that’s a bad sign, but I remember Shangri-La being beautiful and the ending being really really good.
    While I see some points in your discussion, and I can’t really fully comment on those since I haven’t seen it in years, I find that some of your arguments fall through just remembering the ending. The ending was really good for me, it was a ‘back to reality’, ‘fool’s gold’, wathever you call it.
    Seeing this man struggling to find the lost city, getting lost, knowing he’ll never find it again, as the others just accepted their fates as it should be, live their lifes and not an ideal fantasy, this man represents the fool that never gives up, a man who isn’t down to earth and believes in fairy tales.
    Now, I’m not against those kind of people, I’m one of the most detatched-from-the-world people I know, and I really believe in some very stupid maybe inexistent stuff, but what I’m battling is your point of view on this movie.
    As years passed, I somewhat remembered the movie (or half a movie) just because the ending was so great for me, but I always dismissed it as another typical jungle movie, just that this time it was placed in the mountains. I just recently knew the name of the movie and how well it was liked (even some people are searching for the ‘complete’ cut). But still, I’d have to see it myself.

    • Jaime, how nice to have you comment over here! I hope all is well with you.

      Admittedly I have strong feelings about this movie. I’ve seen it several times and each time I get angrier and angrier. I think you are correct: Shangri-La was beautiful and it would have been interesting to see what it would have looked like had Columbia allowed Capra to film it in color.

      But, as you know, the look of the movie isn’t my problem. It’s more a problem with the entire utopian community genre. They just don’t make good stories. I hate to say it but Ayn Rand did the best job in her book “Atlas Shrugged,” but her ideas are so juvenile and destructive that it isn’t a book I could recommend.

      I think you may need to look at the film again because I’m not sure you are remembering the end correctly. All the others choose to stay in Shangri-La, essentially living in a fantasy world. Only Ronald Colman goes with his whiney brother because he knows his brother will die in the mountain without him. When Colman is discovered by rescuers he has amnesia, forgetting everything that happened to him and about Shangri-La. Back in England he remembers and goes back to the Himalayas, disappearing into the mountains. The implication is he made his way back to the city and Jane Wyatt.

      I know many people love this movie and, like you say, hope for a complete cut. But since Capra’s original cut was six hours long, I think I’m OK with what we’ve got. Who knows, though, maybe that would be an amazing movie, though later versions of it were roundly laughed at by test audiences.

      For me it all comes down to this: I don’t care about any of the characters and the philosophy of Shangri-La is comically lame. Clearly others do connect with it, perhaps you are one of them (but I guess you won’t know until you see the movie again). I like your point about Colman believing in fairy tales; maybe we need more of that in the world and a world like Shangri-La may be possible.

      • As I knew, the movie is fuzzy for me. I don’t remember the philosophy of Shangri-La at all, so I don’t know if I go with it.
        The Utopian genre for me must always end in the Distopia, if it isn’t, then the movie/book/wathever looses its appeal and possibilitie of saying something about our society and human nature.

        • Yes, books and movies about dystopian societies are always much more interesting and, as you write, say more about our own society. Give me books like “1984,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or “The Parable of the Sower” and movies like “Metropolis,” “Soylent Green,” or “Escape from New York” over any Utopian story any day. Unfortunately too many people who create a fictional utopian community don’t think through the implications. They can’t because the society is perfect, something humanity is incapable of achieving. This is the fault of the movie for me: it says nothing about society and human nature that hasn’t already been said by others much more eloquently. Maybe there was an appeal for people in the uncertainty of 1937, but I don’t understand the continuing appeal.

  2. Oh God no, Jason!
    Please say it isn’t so!

    You and I are very good friends, and it will take far more than a disagreement on ANY film to have us lock hors, but you have brought one of my favorite American films on the carpet here, one that is surely one of the top contenders on my Ten Best list. My very favorite Capra movies are IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, but this fantasy masterpiece and GENERAL YEN are next up.

    Why do I like it?

    It’s based on a rightly revered Hilton novella (I loved his MR. CHIPS as well), it’s a wistfully nostalgic piece, with a captivating delineation of home and community; it’s setting is exotically alluring; it’s performances are uniformly magnificent, (especially those delightful supporting character turns); Joseph Walker’s exquisite cinematography (great especially in the snow swept sequences in the mountains) and one of Dmiri Tiomkin’s loveliest scores all add up to a treasure of a film, even without talking about Riskin’s wistful and humorous script.

    I agreed with you on IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT being grossly overrated, but not this time. LOST HORIZON is one of the greatest of all Hollywood films, and I’ll always go to the mat for it.

    But you mean a hell of a lot more to me than LOST HORIZON, Jason, so we’ll have to make a plan to watch this film together either in LA or at my place. Consider it etched in stone!

    • Oh, Sam. I’m afraid it is so. I have seen this movie multiple times and always walked away shaking my head. For whatever reason it has never worked for me. I agree with some of the things you admire (the supporting performances, the cinematography, the score), but the script is its weak point for me.

      Sam, we’ve disagreed about movies before (WINTER’S BONE, TOP HAT, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE) and I expect we will disagree again. Isn’t that part of the fun of this endeavor? To exchange ideas and debate what makes a movie good or bad (or indifferent). To have people disagree and challenge my ideas, especially intelligent people like you, forces me to think my arguments through better and sharpen my points. As Hercule Poirot would say, it exercises the little gray cells.

      As much as I don’t relish the idea of watching the movie again, I can’t pass up the opportunity to have you argue your case in real time. Who knows, maybe I’ll change my mind? (Not likely.) We should make it a double feature with something good on the second half of the bill. That I would look forward to.

  3. Jason,

    Thank you for your thoughts on this film, I followed Sam here because another friend had blogged about Xanada in my comments I responded to my memory of Lost Horizon. Truth be told I don’t think I ever saw Xanada, and really don’t care too, yet from the first time I saw “Lost Horizon” it had my captured. For years I sought out the film, later found it, and watched with wonder, I even sought out the book to capture more of the ideals and imperfections that the movie may have missed or glamorized. There is no perfect way to Shangri- La, it is only part of the path, one my choose path that many may not walk. As I write about this film and book, I recall my same response to “The Razors Edge”. I film and story that take you to a realm of thought that one may not have been taught, one that may not be walked by others put still possible.
    I am not a movie reviewer, and I may not respond that same way to a film as other people do. Yet if one finds the deeper message buried in all the “stuff” of a film that it has done it job.
    Thank you for the journey! I will have to seek both film and book out once again now that I am older and wiser.

    • Thanks for visiting and leaving this thoughtful comment. I think to appreciate LOST HORIZON people, like you and Sam, must find something in the philosophy of Shangri-La attractive. I suppose I just wasn’t able to connect, but clearly many people have.

      And no one responds to movies in the same way. One doesn’t have to be a movie reviewer to have a legitimate reaction. You’re right. Everyone responds differently so maybe my problem with LOST HORIZON isn’t that it is such a terrible movie, but that Capra didn’t make it for people like me. The problem I have with this is, as I talked about in the essay, is I don’t understand how this fits with Capra’s understanding of human nature that we get from his other movies.

      Again thanks for stopping by and I hope to hear from you again!

  4. Jason and friends,
    I think for many of us, Lost Horizon and the name that was created Shangri-La represents an emotional search for a peaceful life. Few of us have had a life with out pain. The daily struggle to fulfill our basic needs. The search for some one to love and to be loved. To live each day with caring thoughts for everyone. Surely it is unrealistic and we all know this, but watching Lost Horizon can at least gives us hope that even a small part of the story may be realized in our own lives. If the film gives us hope for a better tomorrow, then I think we should accept it for that alone. The novel I wrote, was once criticized by a well known critic for being sentimental and romantic.

    • Ah it seems I’m still alone. Stuart thank you for explaining your appreciation for the movie. As I’ve said, I know I am in a distinct minority here. I just don’t get the same emotional impact that you and so many others do from it. It never left me with any hope for anything because Shangri-La is so idealized that, to me, it came off as goofy. Utopian idealizations don’t impress me — they’ve failed time and again when people have actually tried to literally recreate them (Brook Farm, New Harmony, Oneida).

      I will admit that they are nice fantasies. I would love to think we could live together in peace and harmony, but experience indicates otherwise. If someone approaches LOST HORIZON like a sort of religious inspiration, I suppose I could understand (without endorsing).

      In the end I prefer movies that truly grapple with social problems and suggest solutions, not pie-in-the-sky fantasies.

  5. Frank Wedel

    God dam stinking piece of shit – all my comments were lost – This is one of my favorite big favorite movies .

    • Frank Wedel

      I wrote a couple of paragraphs of a thoughtful commentaryt on the movie, and it all disappeared all of a sudden – frustrating as heck!

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