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.