Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lost Horizon

I had a customer at the bookstore where I work ask me, “Aren’t you the guy that told me to get the DVD of Lost Horizon?”

I remembered him. “How’d you like it?”

“It was awesome. I’ve watched it twice, the second time with my girlfriend and she liked it, too.” Ahh, another satisfied customer.

The word “awesome” is a strong recommendation but not particularly descriptive as a review, so let me start at the top and recommend for your next movie-night the 1937 production of Lost Horizon.

The picture was produced and directed by Frank Capra, who specialized in romantic comedies and contemporary Americana. For the record, he also directed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Meet John Doe. He made a slew of others that are, if not “great”, certainly interesting.

I like Frank Capra’s work a lot. He’s one of the greats and for years movie fans have enjoyed watching some of his films over and over again. Although he won Best Director Oscars three times, today he is known chiefly for the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, for which he did not win and, which in fact was not a box office success when originally released. But the way things have turned out over time it’s been a better-than-even trade off. When we consider the many Oscar winners of the past, many very well deserved, that are completely forgotten today it is reasonable to state that It’s a Wonderful Life, which is watched by millions every year, is monument enough for any filmmaker.

Capra’s best films hold up remarkably well today. Maybe this is due to the way that he reflected the Depression-era spirit. He was optimistic and positive and he loved America. Today we might even consider him an ambassador to us from that era. You can look at his movies and hear him telling us “This is how you do it: When you face tough times you need to work harder, stay true to your ideals, and stick together”.

Capra also loved innocent boy-meets-girl love stories. Part of Capra’s secret may be this: before he’d let his stories drift too far into sentimentality he’d knock the sweetness flat by throwing in a little raw brutality just to remind audiences that there was a real world outside the theater and they’d better stay awake for it. Think of young George Bailey getting slapped around in back of the drugstore. “You lazy loafer, you should have delivered those pills an hour ago.” Most people know there is a dark side lurking behind the warmth and love. Frank Capra could put it on the screen beautifully.

If you are an admirer of Its a Wonderful Life you will be especially intrigued by Lost Horizon. Though entirely different films, they share a similar theme: both are about a man who have something beautiful and yet decide to throw it away.

In Lost Horizon, we are given a hint of what is thrown away from the first frame of the movie. The moment the Columbia Pictures logo fades from the screen the credits begin to roll over a night aerial view flying up into icy moonlit mountains. As each successive peak is crossed, another higher, more distant peak is revealed in the altitude. With no limit we fly into a vast infinity.

Lost Horizon is based on James Hilton’s short novel of the same title. On the surface it is an imaginative adventure tale that concerns a small group of westerners thrown together escaping a bloody revolution in China. We meet a stuffy paleontologist; an ailing prostitute; a loud American businessman. All are flawed in some way. On the last plane out of Baskul they find that instead of traveling to safety in Shanghai, they have been hi-jacked and taken hostage and are being flown deeper into the interior of the country, then high into the Himalayan Mountains.

Principle among the group, and perhaps the real prize among the hostages, is a British diplomat, Robert Conway, portrayed by the great screen actor Ronald Colman. Conway is a disappointed idealist, a melancholy seeker who fears the world of the 1930s is sliding into another war.

An early bit of dialog as Conway despairs of the slaughter going on down below may have led to the film’s miss-interpretation as a pacifist message-picture. For a few moments he talks dreamily of dismantling the world’s armies and sinking the navies. It is a sophomore year speech, brought on by liquor and high altitude, after which Conway drifts into sleep. The real theme of the picture is left to be discovered somewhere high in the mountains.

Far into the journey the passengers are awakened by the sound of engine trouble just before the plane banks and crashes onto a snowy crag. The captives survive, but soon the severity of their situation sinks in. Hundreds of miles from any village, with inadequate clothing and no food they realize that they face death by exposure and starvation. They are discovered, however, by a group traveling from a remote lamasery. Instead of dying, the westerners are led on an arduous mountain journey that ends when they climb through a narrow pass and cross a gateway.

On the other side, separated from the cold and storms of the outside world, they find warm sunlight and lush greenery. They have arrived at the Valley of the Blue Moon and the welcoming monastery of Shangri-La. A paradise of peace, harmony and contentment stretches before them.

Out of curiosity, I recently read the book just to see how closely the movie follows it. It is a faithful adaptation. Capra and screen writer Robert Riskin tweaked the story here and there, supplying detail that the novel skimmed over, adding a character or two, but it is the same story improved for the screen.

The heart of Hilton's story is central in Capra's film; that of a man, Robert Conway, who finds his state of perfection and, yet, standing in it and experiencing it he cannot believe it is real. "Is it you fail to recognize one of your own dreams when you see it?" a monk asks Conway.

Among the others accompanying Conway is his brother, George, a shallow materialist. George is key to the impact of the story. Every bit of wonderment that Conway finds, his brother recasts as phony spiritual hokum. At every turn George sows dissension, or rails against the teachings of the monks or whispers in Conway’s ear. Even as the others in the group slowly adapt and then embrace Shangri-La, the brother plots a return to civilization.

There is a particularly striking piece of movie making near the end of the film, in the scene where the arguments of the brother finally break Conway down. “I wouldn’t believe this in an English monastery," the brother says. "Why should I believe it in Tibet?”

This scene is a minor masterpiece in itself. It builds to a lingering shot, nearly 45 seconds in length, of Conway as doubt creeps over him. The scene was made in one take with no dialogue. Ronald Colman plays it so clearly, in his eyes and through his body language, that you can read each of his thoughts as they drift across his face: What could I have been thinking? They seem so sincere. I could be content here forever. Those crazy stories of living for hundreds of years. They lied to me.
I was a complete fool to believe any of this….

Slowly, Conway ceases to accept what he has seen with his own eyes and agrees to accompany his brother out of Shangri-La. Consumed by doubt, Conway becomes George Bailey on the bridge.

And this is what makes Lost Horizon a great motion picture and one that is relevant to us today. If we were to step out onto the sidewalk in front of our homes and look up and down the street, or if we were to reflect on all that we possess and take for granted, all that we have experienced and regularly benefited from, how much of this could we be convinced was an illusion? A fraud? A lie? More importantly, how likely is it that we could be convinced that our existence is seriously flawed enough to warrant us throwing it away?

The magnificent Capra-ending I’ll not reveal but will leave to you and your DVD player.

The movie has a terrific cast. Opposite Ronald Colman, the quote-unquote love-interest in the story is played by Jane Wyatt. Never a major star in Hollywood, not glamorous in the usual sense, she is perfect in this part; intelligent, mature, appealing. Also included in the cast are the great Hollywood character actors Edward Everett Horton, Sam Jaffe, and Isabel Jewell, as well as Capra movie-regulars Thomas Mitchell and H.B. Warner who are seen in the featured rolls of Uncle Billy and Mr. Gower, respectively, in Its a Wonderful Life. And, it is important to note that John Howard, who played brother George, became a highly decorated soldier in WWII.

The knock-out photography is by Joseph Walker,ASC. There are lots of candlelight and torch-lit scenes and Walker made the most of them. The scenes surrounding the plane crash and the climb through the Himalayas seem bone-chilling cold. In addition the musical score, by Dimitri Tiomkin, is so good you’ll want to run the movie through your stereo sound system with the volume turned up loud.

Suffice it to say, Lost Horizon is a must-see for every movie fan.