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  Lost Horizon O'er The Hills And Far Away
Year: 1937
Director: Frank Capra
Stars: Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, John Howard, Thomas Mitchell, Margo, Isabel Jewell, H.B. Warner, Sam Jaffe, Noble Johnson
Genre: Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is a British diplomat in China, and there is a revolution occuring in the area where he has been working. In a night of turmoil, Conway is trying to secure an escape route for the ninety-or-so westerners still there, and the only way out is by aeroplane, so he barges his way through the crowds to get them into the aircraft that have arrived there to save them. Then the lights go out, foiling any planes which wanted to land, so Conway has to set light to a nearby hangar to give them bearings; eventually the whites are saved and Conway and a small party board the last plane. But the pilot has been replaced...

Lost Horizon was all set to be one of the biggest disasters of its day, a hugely expensive fantasy epic brought to the screen by Frank Capra, riding high after his massive success with It Happened One Night. The preview screenings of the initial three-and-a-half hour cut had gone down badly, with the audience laughing at its would-be mysticism, and Capra's heart sank, but he was not to be beaten down and re-edited it down to a more manageable couple of hours, and that's the version that was distributed - the excised footage is, as far as we know, lost forever. It took a while, but thanks to many re-releases this became one of the filmmaker's most successful works.

Does it stand up today, however? For many, its vision of Utopia is too much to bear, and they are likely to reject it as unworkable, and it's true after the thrills of the first half hour the excitement levels drop precipitously. During that opening quarter, Conway and the party of escapees, which includes his hot-headed brother George (John Howard), realise that the plane they are travelling on is not going where they thought it was going, and is in fact heading towards the mountains of Tibet. Some of them panic, but Conway calms them by pointing out they cannot do anything to stop the pilot as none of them can fly.

All very exciting as the kidnapped party eventually crash into the side of a mountain and with the pilot dead they are stranded, with little hope of surviving the harsh climate. And then, a miracle: a group of natives appear through the blizzard and greet them, offering shelter and food, not something they can afford to turn down. What this turns out to be is a gateway to that Utopia, as the stranded party are led into the valley of Shangri-La, a paradise enclosed from the world outside by walls of rock on every side. Their guide, Chang (H.B. Warner), makes it clear that this is a place of great serenity, entirely self-sufficient, with no conflict, no need for fighting, no call for greed or selfishness: everything the thirties audience could hope for in those days of "wars and rumours of wars".

Of course, Conway as played by the eminently civilised Colman at his most agreeable and intelligent fits right in here, a location where his dreams of the perfect world have come true. He meets the High Lama (Sam Jaffe in some remarkable old age makeup) who assures him that he is at home here, informs him that the inhabitants live on for centuries, and admits that Conway was brought here by them to take over from the Lama, who is nearing the end of his life and needs a successor. What this actually means is acres of high falutin' talk interspersed with the party having a fine old time, not the most dramatic of plots after the tension of what led up to it. There is one character who cannot stand the idea of living in peace forever, and he is George, who is determined to leave, the only part that should give the narrative a shot in the arm but instead leaves you thinking that he should really have chilled a lot more. However you may agree that heaven on Earth would be boring, it's Conway's side you're on, and that is more to do with Colman's dignified authority than any quality inherent in a one-time classic whose shine has dimmed. Music by Dmitri Tiomkin.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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