Frank Capra and Robert Riskin delivers a timeless fantasy adventure
Haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight? So begins the introduction of the 1937 fantasy film Lost Horizon.
Adapted from the popular 1933 fantasy novel by James Hilton, Lost Horizon is turned into an impressive movie by the lauded partnership of director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin, incorporating high adventure, romance and philosophical drama.
The story begins with British diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) trying to rescue ninety westerners in the city of Barkul in China. He manages to fly out with the last of the evacuees just before the arrival of the revolutionaries.
On the plane, Robert is joined by a paleontologist Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), an embezzler Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), a terminally ill and bitter Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell), Robert’s brother George (John Howard), Robert.
They soon learn that the pilot has been mysteriously replaced and has their aircraft hijacked. The aircraft quickly runs out of fuel and crashes deep into the Himalayan mountains. The crew survive but the pilot is killed.
A caravan led by Chang (H.B. Warner) rescues the survivors and brings them to a paradise called Shangri-La which is hidden from the cold weather. The visitors notice that the inhabitants seem more than content with their existence and are led by the mysterious High Lama (Sam Jaffe).
Although the visitors are initially anxious to return home, most of them begin to fall in love with Shangri-La. Gloria seems to be miraculously recovering from her illness, Henry Barnard and Lovett seem to be at peace but it is Robert who is most entranced by the place, especially when he meets the beautiful local inhabitant Sondra (Jane Wyatt).
However, Robert’s brother George and Shangri-La inhabitant Maria (Margo) are determined to leave.
Robert has an audience with the High Lama who tells him that their arrival was more than an accident and that he was chosen to replace the him as leader. The High Lama also reveals that he is a two hundred years old missionary, his long life being due to the magical properties of the paradise he founded many years before. The High Lama then quietly passes away.
George refuses to believe his brother’s incredible story and along with Maria, is intent on leaving Shangri-La. Despite the warnings of the consequences of doing so and a mention that Maria being much older than she appears, Robert is torn between loyalty to his brother and his love for Sondra but must make a choice. He decides to leave with his brother. What can possibly go wrong?
Frank Capra was anxious to film James Hilton’s novel whilst filming his award-winning classic It Happened One Night. Capra was adamant that Ronald Colman would be cast in the lead role of Robert Conway, that when hearing of Colman’s unavailability, he postponed the project until the situation changed.
Authorized initially at a budget of $1.25 million, Lost Horizon had huge cost overruns which took five years to return the costs of the production. Capra even wanted to shoot the film in color but resorted to black and white to incorporate stock footage and use clips from a documentary. Besides, three strip technicolor would have been a very expensive process back then.
The result is sublime. Lost Horizon is a well told story made on a grand scale. It is also impeccably cast. Capra’s patience with the availability of Ronald Colman was a masterstroke. Colman is terrific as Robert, but the supporting actors are impeccably cast and produce memorable performances.
The film is also magnificently staged and beautifully photographed by Joseph Walker and Elmer Dyer. Frank Capra’s direction is impeccable as you would expect.
The script has been brilliantly adapted by Robert Riskin, who was a frequent collaborator with Frank Capra and had written the screenplay for Capra’s previous movie It Happened One Night. Riskin’s writing always conveys subtlety and sophistication, even to make a simple point, such as when Chang tells that they “do not buy or sell or seek personal fortunes” because there is “uncertain for future here for which to accumulate it”. Riskin inserts this line to emphasize the impracticality of money in Shangri-La. This could be interpreted as a socialist message but this not really an obvious impression, only that the inhabitants of Shangri-La simply did not have need for it.
The original ending of Riskin’s script had a deliberately ambiguous ending because the original novel certainly had one. Lost Horizon had already faced lots of cuts following the disastrous test screening, trimming the movie from 210 minutes to 132 minutes (it had already been cut down from six hours). Producer Harry Cohn instructed Capra and Riskin to create an ending which has more clarity. Despite being shot and used on the first week, Capra and Riskin had cut the end sequence to bring back that sense of ambiguity. The result is one of those powerful finales in film history.
Lost Horizon was made at a time when the already war-weary Americans were worried about another war developing from Europe. Frank Capra and Robert Riskin certainly had a keen sense of the public mood and the picture offers peace, security and health instead of uncertainty, strife and illness.
So Lost Horizon is a film of its time, reflecting themes of its time and obviously containing attitudes that seemed appropriate for its time, but containing a hope which can embraced in today’s uncertain world. It is also wonderfully entertaining and remains one of the finest movies from the thirties.
Paul J. Bradley
This is one of my two entries for Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: The Blogathon, which is in conjunction with the publication of the absolutely wonderful Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir by their daughter Victoria Viskin. The book was published on February 26th 2019 and it is an essential read. Please visit our blogs to read about their work on March 2nd and 3rd.