Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Lost Horizon

Two movies have been based on Lost Horizon (1933) by James Hilton.

1. US movie (1937). Columbia. Pr Frank Capra. Dir Capra. Vfx Ganahl Carson, E Roy Davidson. Screenplay Robert Riskin. Starring Ronald Colman (Robert Conway), Edward Everett Horton (Lovett), John Howard (George Conway), Sam Jaffe (Perrault), Isabel Jewell (Gloria), Margo (Maria), Thomas Mitchell (Barnard), H B Warner (Chang), Jane Wyatt (Sondra). 132 mins (released cut to 118 mins). B/w.

1935, China. Diplomat Robert Conway, plus brother George, palaeontologist Lovett, dying floozie Gloria and fraudster Barnard flee a massacre. But their pilot proves an impostor, and they are taken not to "civilization" but deep into the Himalayas to the remote Valley of the Blue Moon, dominated by the lamasery of Shangri-La. Courteous elderly lama Chang tells Conway the lamasery was founded some two centuries earlier by a lost Belgian priest, Father Perrault, who stumbled on the valley and its occupants and discovered the place held the secret to perfect health as well as ample gold for trade. Called to audience with the High Lama, Conway realizes this is Perrault, still alive; Perrault explains his vision of Shangri-La as an oasis of culture designed to survive the imminent destruction, by greed and materialism, of the rest of humanity, and so to carry civilization forward until the end of the dark age. As he expires, Perrault passes the baton of high-lamahood to Conway, in effect offering the lovely valley-dweller Sondra as bait.

By now the other members of the party have changed for the better. But George, abetted by a rebellious resident, the girlish Russian Maria, wants to escape, even though she knows that leaving the valley brings accelerated ageing and death; they persuade Conway that all is a cruel sham, and the trio depart in the company of bribed porters. Only Conway reaches civilization; having told rescuing diplomat Gainsford the truth he flees back to Shangri-La.

LH is faithful to the spirit of Hilton's novel. However, much is lost in the translation into the new medium. In particular, aside from most of the Frame Story, omitted is the novel's depiction of the chillness of mind inculcated by near-Immortality – as epitomized by Hilton's rather cold observation of the Chinese (not Russian) apparent girl with whom Conway (not George) becomes entangled: that she has fallen in love with him because it is the courteous thing to do, a service that she has performed before with other immigrants. Much moral dichotomy is likewise glossed over: there is no trace of the novel's suggestion that Shangri-La is unknown to the outside world because would-be emigrants are quietly murdered. And, of course, almost all of the book's "orientalism" is lost through casting. Such objections should not be taken as detractions from LH's merits in its own terms, however: this is a movie of breathtaking ambition.

LH, previewed at 132 mins, was almost immediately cut to 118 mins. The truncated version, a box-office blockbuster, was further shortened during WWII because of its pacifism. The original nitrate negative had by the mid-1960s, when interest in LH resurfaced, become unscreenable and potentially lethal; no complete prints survived. From 1973 to 1986 a team under Robert Gitt located prints worldwide and pieced together an almost complete version – full 132min soundtrack; 125 mins of pictures. It is this, the lost 7 mins infilled using stills, that currently stands as the best version.

Return to Shangri-La * (1987) by Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) is a sequel to Capra's movie, not to the original novel. [JG]

2. Lost Horizon US movie (1972). Columbia. Pr Ross Hunter. Dir Charles Jarrott. Spfx Butler-Glounerjine. Screenplay Larry Kramer. Starring Charles Boyer (High Lama/Perrault), Peter Finch (Richard Conway), John Gielgud (Chang), Olivia Hussey (Maria), Sally Kellerman (Sally Hughes), George Kennedy (Sam Cornelius), James Shigeta (Brother To-Lenn), Liv Ullmann (Catherine), Bobby Van (Harry Lovett), Michael York (George Conway). 143 mins. Colour.

To remake one of the classics of popular cinema as a Burt Bacharach/Hal David musical might seem a fool's errand, and it was. Although the particulars of the stranded characters have changed, the remake is reasonably faithful – albeit modernized, with added spectacle plus overt inspirational infusions from the movies Airport (1970) and, incredibly, The Sound of Music (1965). The all-star cast do their best in the bits between the embarrassing song-breaks, but the cause is lost. [JG]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.