British diplomat Robert Conway and a small group of civilians crash land in the Himalayas, and are rescued by the people of the mysterious, Eden-like valley of Shangri-la. Protected by the mountains from the world outside, where the clouds of World War II are gathering, Shangri-la provides a seductive escape for the world-weary Conway.
In his autobiography, director Frank Capra refers to Lost Horizon as “what I think is my best motion picture.” That’s quite a statement from the man who helmed two Best Picture Oscar winners (It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You), as well as two of cinema’s greatest social commentary films (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), not to mention what many regard as the finest Christmas movie ever made (It’s a Wonderful Life). Yet Lost Horizon consumed Capra like no other property, spawning an unyielding commitment to present James Hilton’s best-selling novel and its uplifting utopian message in a relatable, authentic manner. Capra succeeds on many counts, juxtaposing impressive spectacle sequences with moments of intimacy and deep meaning, but sometimes too much passion clouds a filmmaker’s judgment and leads to self-indulgence. Eighty years after its initial release, Lost Horizon remains a monumental achievement - especially for its time period - but it’s far from a perfect film.
Capra’s finest movies champion the unassuming, honest-to-a-fault common man who stands up to the big, bad, corrupt establishment and tries to single-handedly bring it down. He doesn’t always win, but he at least scores a moral victory that garners vociferous approval from a disheartened and cynical public. Lost Horizon aspires to grander ideals, preaching the importance of unity, acceptance, diversity, harmony, and - most importantly - peace. It’s literate and deep and meaningful and shrouded in fantasy and mysticism. Yet it’s not particularly accessible. An aloof quality pervades the film and keeps it at arm’s length. The hopeful, inspirational message still rings true - and resonates quite strongly in this turbulent, troubling day and age - but intellectualism often supersedes emotion, tempering the impact.
An adventurous air, however, initially permeates the film, as English diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), his impulsive brother and aide George (John Howard), fastidious paleontologist Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), free-wheeling businessman Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), and Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell), a woman of questionable repute, rush to board the last plane leaving the war-torn Chinese city of Baskul in 1935. The group assumes the pilot is taking them to Shanghai, but it soon becomes apparent the plane is flying in a different direction. After a crash landing somewhere amid the snowy, frigid, Himalayan peaks, the quintet is rescued by a squadron of Tibetan natives, who lead the weary travelers across gaping chasms and along narrow cliffs into the Valley of the Blue Moon, a lush, fertile, temperate landmass dominated by the imposing white lamasery of Shangri-La. The High Lama (Sam Jaffe) and his loyal servant Chang (H.B. Warner) preside over the peaceful community that remains untouched by political and social strife. The residents adhere to high moral standards and are rewarded with extended mortality and a bountiful, carefree existence.
Robert is instantly captivated by the valley and its ideals, and becomes involved with Sondra (Jane Wyatt), a young woman who has lived at Shangri-La since she was a girl. Sondra, who somehow learned of his humanitarian work and efforts to promote world peace, brings Robert to the attention of the 200-year-old High Lama, who knows death is near and names the diplomat as his successor. Yet George and the beautiful Maria (Margo) pooh-pooh the mystic properties that permeate the valley and allow it to flourish as a utopian haven. They are determined to leave Shangri-La, and put pressure on Robert to abandon his newfound beliefs (as well as Sondra) and accompany them back to civilization...if they can survive the treacherous journey.
During its second half, Lost Horizon gets a bit bogged down in its philosophy, sacrificing action for ideas. Capra was passionate about the novel’s message, and he and screenwriter Robert Riskin spend a lot time explaining and debating the attitudes and outlying forces that fuel and sustain Shangri-La. The film’s pacing suffers as a result, but the viewpoints are by no means trivial; in fact, they eerily mirror our current state of civil and political affairs. “Look at the world today,” the High Lama says. “Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is, what blindness, what unintelligent leadership. A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other, compelled by an orgy of greed and brutality.” Capra and Riskin may be obliquely referencing Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and other dictators of the period as the Second World War loomed large, but today’s heated conflicts between blustery nations with nuclear weapons ready for deployment emphasize the timeless nature of both the High Lama’s comments and the raison d’être of Shangri-La.
The movie’s first hour, though, embraces spectacle, and Capra pulls out all the stops crafting several impressive sequences that stretched the limits of 1930s filmmaking. During the Himalayan sequences, Capra couldn’t rely on CGI to make the actors’ breath show up; he had to shoot the scenes in a cold storage warehouse in sub-freezing temperatures that caused “a nightmare of technical hang-ups,” like damaged cameras and film, short-circuited cables, shattered light bulbs, and plenty of frozen hands. He also filmed enormous crowd scenes, an explosive fire in the blistering Mojave Desert, a plane crash, and an avalanche, and constructed the enormous Shangri-La set with its huge lamasery at the Columbia Pictures ranch in Burbank. Before all was said and done and shot, the budget ballooned to an unheard of $2.6 million...half of what Columbia spent on its entire film output for the year!
It took many years and many reissues for Lost Horizon to recoup its costs, and the tireless efforts to break even resulted in different circulating versions of the film, which was cut and re-edited a couple of times between its initial release and the end of World War II. A big chunk of the movie was thought lost, but a vigorous restoration project begun in 1970 yielded Lost Horizon’s complete 132-minute soundtrack and all but six minutes of excised footage. This restored version, which inserts production stills and publicity portraits over the stretches of the soundtrack where visuals have not been recovered (if you’ve seen the restored 1954 edition of A Star Is Born, you know what I mean) has been remastered in 4K for this very noteworthy Blu-ray release.
Colman was born to play Conway, and he brings to the role all of his patented sincerity, nobility, intelligence, and grace. The man who immortalized the words “it’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done” the previous year in A Tale of Two Cities, infuses the benevolent diplomat with the same integrity, moral compass, and sense of duty that distinguishes Charles Dickens’ hero Sydney Carton. (Surprisingly, Colman was not nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, nor did Capra nab a Best Director nod, even though the Academy honored Lost Horizon with a Best Picture nomination. In all, the film garnered seven Oscar nominations, including one for H.B. Warner as Best Supporting Actor, and took home the prize for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.) Capra also coaxes fine work from Wyatt, perhaps best known as one of the first TV sitcom moms in the long-running Father Knows Best, as well as the exotic Margo and always reliable Horton, Mitchell, Warner, and Jaffe.
Shangri-La may not really exist, but the idea of it appeals to anyone who believes in peace, equality, respect, and the power of positivity. And it’s those high-minded principles that make Lost Horizon endure. Few films exude as much hope for humanity, and while it may be a bit languorous and self-important, it remains a fascinating, artistic, and important work. Capra may have considered Lost Horizon his masterpiece, but time and taste may deem other films in his canon more worthy of that distinction. One thing, though, is certain. Capra’s legacy is incredibly rich, and Lost Horizon is a vital part of it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 80th Anniversary edition of Lost Horizon arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a stunning 28-page digibook printed on thick glossy pages that gorgeously showcase more than a dozen rare black-and-white photos. An essay by Jeremy Arnold on the making of the film, an in-depth discussion of the current restoration, and credit lists for Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, and Frank Capra comprise the contents, as well as a leaflet containing an access code for the HD Digital Copy. Though this digibook matches up nicely with the three previous Capra Blu-ray digibook releases (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), its quality seems just a tad elevated, making it another cherished collectible for the classic movie fan. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
As explained in the liner notes, the restoration of Lost Horizon has continued on and off since the project’s inception way back in 1970, and this beautiful new 4K scan includes additional pieces of previously lost footage that cropped up in a 16 mm French TV print of the film. Restoring a movie from multiple sources is far from ideal, but in the case of Lost Horizon, stitching these elements together would be the only way this classic motion picture could be shown as it was originally intended. (About six minutes of footage remains lost, but because the film’s complete soundtrack exists, those visual gaps are filled in with scene and publicity stills from the movie to preserve narrative continuity.) As a result, the picture quality of this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer varies over the course of the film’s running time. Some scenes look marvelously crisp, with top-notch clarity, contrast, and detail levels bringing the image to life like never before, while others appear quite soft and flaunt higher degrees of grain. Viewers just need to expect such inconsistencies, roll with the punches, and realize they are being treated to the fruits of years of intensive and meticulous labor by teams of dedicated professionals who care deeply about film history and preservation.
First and foremost, we are lucky to be able to see this film In this superior condition. The ornate sets and authentic costumes exhibit wonderful levels of detail and texture, palpable depth enhances the story’s epic nature, and pleasing close-ups highlight Colman’s slightly weathered features and Wyatt’s creamy white skin. Blacks exude a lovely richness, the falling white snow and mammoth, craggy drifts are marvelously distinct, and the grays in between produce enough variance to create a beautifully structured image that faithfully honors Joseph Walker’s cinematography. Though grain is always evident, its impact is minimal during the film’s clearest portions, and excellent shadow delineation boosts the vitality of nocturnal scenes. Eagle eyes might be able to spot a couple of print defects, but despite the use of various sources, the picture remains remarkably clean throughout. Though a complete and spotless version of Lost Horizon has been as elusive as Shangri-La itself, this spectacular restoration and high-quality transfer come closer than any others to presenting this classic the way Frank Capra envisioned it.
For an 80-year-old movie, Lost Horizon sounds darn good. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track has been scrubbed clean of any annoying age-related defects like hiss, pops, and crackles, and though a bit of faint surface noise can be detected during quiet moments, it never interferes with the action. The howling wind, rumbling jet engines, footsteps in the snow, and bursts of gunfire are all well rendered, and all the dialogue is nicely prioritized and easy to comprehend. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion, and solid fidelity bolsters the impact of Dimitri Tiomkin’s memorable, Oscar-nominated music score, which fills the room with ease. Audio engineering was still in its infancy at the time of Lost Horizon, but this track showcases the primitive sound to its best advantage.
All the extras from the 2000 DVD have been ported over to this 80th anniversary Blu-ray edition. The material is quite interesting, but it’s a shame no new supplements were produced to complement them.
Audio Commentary - The late Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin and film preservationist Robert Gitt sat down in 1999 for this informative commentary that focuses on the previous restoration of Lost Horizon, as well as its production history and subsequent shortened and altered versions of the movie. (A printed introduction to the commentary states some remarks have been deleted because they are no longer relevant after the picture underwent a full 4K restoration.) Gitt dominates the track and outlines the film’s checkered history, explaining in great detail why it was cut after its initial release and slightly changed for its reissue during World War II. He identifies which scenes and snippets have been restored, discusses casting and censorship issues, and talks about preservation. Though it occasionally gets bogged down in minutia, this is a very informative and interesting track that sheds a great deal of light on an important film.
Photo Documentary (HD, 30 minutes) - Kendall Miller is probably the world’s foremost authority on Lost Horizon, and this fascinating 1999 retrospective documentary, which he wrote and directed, provides a comprehensive account of the film’s production. Incorporating very rare behind-the-scenes photos and film clips, Miller, who also narrates this piece, talks about the technological challenges Capra faced, chronicles the shooting of several key sequences, explains how effects were created, and describes the movie’s original opening and deleted scenes. He also debunks myths, shares anecdotes about the disagreements between Capra and Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn, and touches upon other subjects like set design and retakes. If you only have time for one supplement, make sure you check out this essential and definitive making-of documentary.
Restoration Featurette (HD, 9 minutes) - This featurette is really a compendium of three deleted scenes. One is simply unused footage taken from the film’s original camera negative, while the other two were likely cut from the print after Lost Horizon’s first preview. Because no audio exists for the latter two scenes, Robert Gitt reads the dialogue from the shooting script over the corresponding images.
Alternate Ending (HD, 3 minutes) - Capra’s original, somewhat ambiguous ending was briefly replaced by a studio mandated romantic finish that was wisely abandoned after the film’s first week-and-a-half of release. Both endings are compared here.
Before and After Comparison (HD, 1 minute) - This brief snippet demonstrates how a digital tear was repaired and how an unsteady 16 mm blow-up shot was digitally stabilized.
Trailers (HD, 8 minutes) - Two brief teasers, one of which hypes Lost Horizon as “a picture that should mark a milestone in film history,” as well as the 1942 re-issue trailer and lengthy French and Spanish previews complete the supplemental package.
Lost Horizon may not be director Frank Capra’s best film, but it was certainly his most ambitious, and in the 80 years since it first premiered, this philosophical fantasy has been through the proverbial wringer. Lucky for us, the movie’s decades-long restoration process has culminated in this glorious anniversary edition that features a newly remastered 4K video transfer, lossless audio, and all the supplements from the previous DVD. Capping off the presentation is gorgeous digibook packaging that matches three other Capra releases in this collection. During these troubling times, the hopeful message of Lost Horizon resonates just as strongly as it surely did in the years before World War II, and makes this impressive and ambitious production quite relevant once more. From both cinematic and thematic perspectives, this artistic and thought-provoking film comes highly recommended.