Lost Horizon Reviews
There are some fictional places known more for their name than their origin. I doubt one person in ten knows the origin of "Utopia," and I doubt one in a thousand has read the book. Goodness knows I haven't, haven't ever really wanted to. It's something about Saint Thomas Moore, really; his last words amuse me, but I don't think I actually want to read his writing. Similarly, I have never actually read the novel [i]Lost Horizon[/i], wherein Shangri-La appears. James Hilton, the author, was influenced by the actual Buddhist tradition of Shambhala, but in the decades since the book came out, it is Hilton's spelling which has come to dominate Western thinking. I think most people know kind of vaguely that Shangri-La is supposedly in Tibet, but I doubt most of them know why--or care.
There is an uprising in China. A planeful of Westerners, mostly British, are making their escape. Only they are flying east, into the heart of Asia, not west, to Shanghai. (I think.) The plane stops only once to refuel, and then they take off again, only to crash high in the Himalayas. There, they are rescued by natives and taken to the sheltered valley of Shangri-La. Among the travelers is Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), intended to be the next British Foreign Secretary. It turns out that Shangri-La is a place of magic powers, a place where there is no illness and where youth lasts centuries. However, the High Lama (Sam Jaffe) is at long last dying, and he has brought Conway and the others to Shangri-La so that Conway will replace him. Unfortunately, Conway's younger brother, George (John Howard), is not so satisfied with Shangri-La as the others. He, along with the lovely Maria (Margo), wants to return to civilization--and he wants the older Conway to come.
Honestly, the best part of the movie is Edward Everett Horton as the stuffy paleontologist. He has made a discovery in the Chinese highlands of a megatherium fossil, which will overturn quite a lot of paleontology. (Actually, he's quite right about that, though I don't know it he should have been knighted over it. Currently, the megatherium is exclusively known to have inhabited the Americas, and finding one in Asia would be astonishing.) He seems stuffy. He probably always has been.. But the air of Shangri-La loosens him up. This means that we get both delightful types of Edward Everett Horton behaviour. We get him as the intellectual who has a hard time remembering that not everyone knows as much as he does, and we have the slightly goofy man attempting to entertain children with stories. He is, to me, on that long list of "actors I love and have to identify to practically everyone."
The movie, of course, has the casual kind of racism you get from this era. Despite the fact that Shangri-La is a repository for all the world's knowledge, it takes the arrival of Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell) to bring in plumbing. So okay; that might be a place where the skill is important. But the High Lama isn't Tibetan. We're not even talking things like how Chang is played by H. B. Warner--not one of [i]those[/i] Warners, one of a distinguished family of British actors. We're talking the character, who is from Luxembourg, of all places. And when the High Lama is dying, he sends for an Englishman. There is also a disregard of the life of the pilot--actually, both pilots. They were supposed to have been flown in by an English-speaking pilot, who disappears from the movie without a trace, and the Tibetan pilot dies bringing them to Shangri-La, we never know quite how or why. Because, I suppose, he might tell Our Heroes what was going on before they were supposed to know.
In a way, it could be said that most Capra, or at any rate most of the best-known Capra, is about a longing for Shangri-La. George Bailey wants to travel to find it only to discover that Bedford Falls will do just as well. John Doe is seeking Shangri-La for all of us, and Jeff Smith is creating camps of it for boys. Similarly, the fondness a lot of people have for Capra's films comes from imagining a fanciful world where nothing goes too very wrong. In the end, Good always triumphs over Evil. Gloria (Isabel Jewell) may be a tough woman of dubious reputation, but she's good at heart and can't be allowed to die of what's probably tuberculosis. (She has a cough and six months to live.) Henry didn't mean to scam his investors, and he can do better helping the villagers of Shangri-La than he would in an American jail. It'll all turn out right in the end, in the Land of Capra.