“Lost Horizon” – the 1937 movie adaptation of the James Hilton novel features a pacifist action-adventure hero and a preternatural high lama, and

a fantastic climate change !

The hidden-away high-altitude lamasery of Lost Horizon is a dreamscape; the setting for a fantasy and a parable.

The 1937 movie adaptation of James Hilton’s novel depicts an incredible arrival to a transcending kind of la la land, bathed in incomparable moonlight.

The film won the Oscar for Best Art Direction - Set Direction and Best Film Editing; was nominated for Best Sound Recording and Best Music Score, and Best Picture.

The movie is a marvel of cinematic recreation and visual transport. The set designs and stagings are noteworthy still.

But first, we take note of the novel’s revelations:

“The Facts”

May 20, 1931: There’s lethal chaos at an airfield in China. The runways are being overrun by menacing revolutionaries. They are threatening the lives of Westerners, who are clamoring to board aeroplanes; motors running, propellers spinning. The evacuees are running for their lives.

The final phase of the late-night, moon-less, edge-of-the-seat evacuation is facilitated (in the film) by setting an airport hangar aflame. The temporarily-illuminated runway is being overrun by revolutionaries bent on thwarting any escape. But have the passengers on the very last plane to take off actually escaped? Turns out that their flight out of peril is being hijacked; their plane is flying to parts unknown.

British consular official Robert Conway, humanitarian and the resourceful hero of the evacuation, boards the last plane – the one plane capable of ascending above Himalayan altitudes. Just a coincidence?

The plane never reached India. Disappeared.

Fast forward to October 5, 1931: Delirious, Robert Conway is brought to a provincial hospital in China, where he recovers and rehabs for several months.

Fast forward to February 3, 1932: Mysteriously, without any goodbyes let alone explanations, Conway slips his well-meaning British “rescuers” in Bangkok. He’s never heard from again.

With health and memory recovered, a mysterious determination took hold of him. Conway’s rescuers wonder if there could possibly be any truth to his stories about a utopia in Tibet, in a Valley of the Blue Moon. Was there such a nirvana? The novel is escapist, and we root for Conway’s story, be it so very hard to believe.

“The Yarn”

Conway’s incredible tale is related through two Oxford acquaintances of his, who are skeptical but nevertheless intrigued to the point where disbelief gives way, ever so slightly, to serious mullings and speculations.

Was Conway the intended object of the abduction and the sole reason for the hijacking of the only high-altitude plane?

How were remote Himalayan tribesmen alerted to arrange for the plane’s refueling in what appears to be uninhabitable terrain?

Who conceived of the plane’s precise crash-landing at the entranceway to a most precarious pass through most forbidding mountains? And for what purpose?

Is there actually a Valley of the Blue Moon, in Tibet, that is so shielded by unapproachable peaks that a lamasery flourishes beyond what can be imagined? Is there indeed a Shangri-La, where the temperate climate belies the location and elevation? And where serenity and intelligence defy biological, chronological aging?

Following his “rescue,” after having disappeared and been incommunicado for months, did Conway escape his well-intentioned countrymen to attempt to trek back to Tibet? Will he find his way back to the Valley of the Blue Moon, and Shangri-La, 800 to 1,000 miles north northwest?

The high-altitude landscape

When there is visibility, the hijacked passengers peered out to “sheer white walls that seemed part of the sky itself until the sun caught them.” They were in awe of – captivated and unnerved by – “the range upon range of snow-peaks, festooned with glaciers, and floating, in appearance, upon vast levels of clouds, for there was something raw and monstrous about those uncompromising ice-cliffs….”

The hijacked plane had motored above “unhumanized” topography: “the peaks had a chill gleam; utterly majestic and remote, their very namelessness had dignity… a full moon rose, touching each peak in succession like some celestial lamp-lighter, until the long horizon glittered against the blue-black sky…. starlight illuminated a tremendous emptiness heaving with wind.”

There were still more unnerving sensations: “It was not merely a strong wind or a cold wind… it seemed as if the same wind were whirling splinters of light out of the stars.”

James Hilton’s novel takes the reader to “the loftiest and least hospitable part of the earth’s surface, the Tibetan plateau, two miles high even in its lowest valleys, a vast, uninhabited, and largely unexplored region of wind-swept upland.”

Shangri-La – not marked on any map

One of the hijacked passengers – a young, over-wrought, impetuous high-strung, hysterical and truculent British foreign service type – immediately, and gracelessly, tells his greeter at the lamasery, “We want to return to civilization as soon as possible.” The greeter appears to be “either a young man prematurely old or an old man remarkably well-preserved.” Calmly, the greeter responds, “Are you so very certain that you are away from civilization?”

By contrast, Conway, “relieved of immediate worries and reluctant to cherish distant ones, wonders how mangoes could be cultivated at such an altitude.” The sheltering mountain soars over 28,000 feet.

Shangri-La’s enviable sensations

“The air, clean as from another planet, was more precious with every intake. One had to breathe consciously and deliberately, which, though disconcerting at first, induced after a time an almost ecstatic tranquility of mind…. the lungs, no longer discreet and automatic, were disciplined to harmony with mind and limb.” In time, “the lung-bursting pulmonary warfare” gave way to relieving deep breaths; and to curious, curiously deep, thoughts.

The reader is walked through the pavilions that have somehow been constructed to nestle into and cling to the mountainside. The reader gets to meander into the valley that has been “delightfully favored” with what was surely the most profound example of highly-beneficial climate change. The valley’s atmospheric tranquility is in stark contrast to the forbidding atmospheres of the knife-edge traverses which alone give access to the precarious mountain pass that leads to Shangri-La. The hidden-away magnificence “has flourished without contamination from the outside world.”

“The valley below was nothing less than an enclosed paradise of amazing fertility, in which the vertical difference of a few thousand feet spanned the whole gulf between temperate and tropical. Crops of unusual diversity grew in profusion and continuity… nourished continually from the surrounding glacier heights.”

Conway’s receptivity, delight, enchantment

In the psyche (and soul) of the resourceful and brave man of the evacuation, “a mystical strain ran in curious consort with skepticism.” Even with misgivings, Conway “found himself not unhappily puzzled over the sensation.” He “acclimatizes” – fascinated by the calm, the civility, of the Shangri-La civilization.

For the reader, James Hilton likens the sensation: “There were moments in life when one opened wide one’s soul just as one might open wide one’s purse if an evening’s entertainment were proving unexpectedly costly but also unexpectedly novel.”

The reader is told that “Conway was physically happy, emotionally satisfied, and mentally at ease.” He relishes the austere serenity of the pavilions that “shimmer in repose from which all the fret of existence had ebbed away.”

An immoderate way of ruling moderately

In addition to the setting, Conway is intrigued, entranced, by the settled ethos of the place: “a vague kind of theocracy.” He is told, “We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience.” To reconcile competing claims for the truth, the lamasery holds that “a jewel has many facets, and thus it is possible that many religions are moderately true.” As to this thinking, the lamasery “is only moderately certain.” Thus, its appeal.

Furthermore, governance relies not so much on subservience as on mutually-agreed-upon courtesy and goodwill, which foster contentment. There is no voting. The ethos is that “to govern perfectly it is necessary to avoid governing too much.” There seems to be no need for formal edicts or dictates: “Our people would be quite shocked by having to declare that one policy was completely right and another completely wrong.” And yet there does seem to be a clear understanding and acceptance of what is wrong behavior.

All this has Conway feel “an extraordinary sense of physical and mental settlement.” Shangri-La’s atmosphere “soothed while its mystery stimulated, and the total sensation was agreeable.”

A refuge where agreeability refutes disagreeability

All the more so for Conway, a survivor of World War One trench warfare. For him, in1931, Shangri-La’s deep calm provides an almost deliriously welcome contrast. “There was a reek of dissolution over all the recollected world.” During filming in 1937, Director Frank Capra and male lead Ronald Colman are said to have been apprehensive about developments in Europe.

They (and James Hilton) were prescient: In 1931, within Shangri-La’s elevated remove, the High Lama (who the novel credits with telepathic powers) foresees widespread doom from “war, lust, and brutality.” He sees “nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he sees their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might match a whole army…. He foresees a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, would rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing would be in danger… from the doom that gathers around on every side….”

Conway asks, “Might Shangri-La escape?”

The High Lama replies, “We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.”

Conway was passing beyond astonishment. “His doubts were no longer harassing, but part of a subtle harmony.”

The novel’s disharmony with our times

Well, there are narcotic indulgences (“mild ecstasies”) which are resorted to approvingly and to salutary effect; there is the wholly ascetic view of romance and love, which has the more enlightened pass from “fleshy enjoyments into a more austere but no less satisfying realm” – a kind of elevated sensory neutering; there’s population replenishment via kidnapping and enforced detention; and there are subtle racial biases.

The film’s harmony with our times

The film conveys much of the ethos of James Hilton’s Shangri-La, but is more mission-driven (especially as to the lamasery’s focus on Conway). The film is more thrilling, especially – not surprisingly – in the evacuation, in the cabin scenes as the hijacked plane (with its captives) flies higher and far longer than could be expected or understood; in the refueling by tribesmen in a remote mountain opening; in the crash-landing many hours later; and in the bitterly-wind-chilled ice-creviced lung-busting trek to the Valley of the Blue Moon, and….. and….

Utopia to the silver screen, and DVD

Of special interest is the DVD that incorporates the archival finds and restoration work of the American Film Institute. Research and interviews aided by access to inherited “stills,” “rough cuts,” camera logs, and memoirs make for the DVD’s special features, which speak to (among other things) – the filming of the airport evacuation (using the then Metro Airport, Van Nuys, and employing 500 Chinese-speaking “extras”); the refueling scene (Mohave Desert); the high-altitude plane’s Himalayan overflights (a Douglas DC-2, with the Sierra Nevada Mountains as stand-ins); the crash-landing and Himalayan trek (filmed in a 24-degree cold-storage warehouse located in downtown Los Angeles) mixed with authentic documentary long-shots of high-altitude expeditions; the “soulful wonderment” of Shangri-La’s “idealized structure of dramatic proportions” created in a 500-foot-wide 1,000-feet-long sound stage, which accommodated a 90-foot-high central façade; with outdoor scenes filmed at Columbia Pictures Ranch, Burbank (later a mall), and at Palm Springs, Malibu State Park, and Sherwood Forest, Westlake Village. Calling for a budget four times that of contemporary films.

The special features also include the film footage of opening and closing scenes that were cut, but which make for fascinating viewing, and contemplation.

Screenwriter Robert Riskin and director Frank Capra took some liberties, but those departures and additions work. The action scenes (the evacuation; the plane’s long detouring into Tibet; Conway’s conflicts and divided loyalties, his sense of allegiance and responsibility; the ill-advised and misjudged escape attempt; and Conway’s inconceivable, solo, return trek) add vividness. The histories and dispositions of the film’s plane passengers (the abductees) substitute for those of the novel, and allow for a bit more empathy. The film’s characters supply humor that does not detract from the novel’s themes and messages.

The favorable reception

In its March 4, 1937 review of the film, the New York Herald Tribune declared, “James Hilton’s philosophical fantasy, Lost Horizon, has come to the screen as a stunningly-mounted and engrossing photoplay…. The strange tale of a group of people transported into the timeless Utopia of a Tibetan lamasery has been filmed in exciting sequences by Frank Capra…. who gave the adventure sequences memorable urgency…. It is a triumph of screen ingenuity and integrity that the film has retained so much of the brooding spell of its original in a richly satisfying entertainment.”

In paying homage to James Hilton’s novel, the film review published March 7, 1937, in the New York Herald Tribune, declared that “the novel’s chief appeal was in its delicate fantasy and its philosophy… breaking through the bars of reality to introduce readers to the mysteries of a Tibetan Nirvana, an escapist paradise in a troubled world.”

As to the movie, the review declared, “Lost Horizon is a genuine triumph of showmanship…. That the film retained as much as it has of the book’s fragile spell is remarkable.”

As to the interview conversations between the somewhat mesmerized action-adventure hero and the ethereal High Lama, the March 7 review delivered a see-saw compliment: “Although they have far more dialogue than should be permitted in any motion picture, they summon up the brooding and provocative essence of Mr. Hilton’s philosophy in memorable terms.” That review also took exception to the romantic interlude, which was the screenwriter’s creation, and seems to be “out of key” with the novel.

1937 – a focus on Tibet, China, and the Far East

Still, the reviews were unequivocal in their praise of the filmmakers’ accomplishments: The latter review extoled, “The presentation of Lost Horizon, coming as it does on the heels of The Good Earth, should prove enormously heartening to those who have more than a passing interest in the photoplay. Not only are these productions superior entertainments in any medium, but they reveal an audacity on the part of Hollywood that has been too rarely in evidence.

“It is difficult to think of any other popular and highly-esteemed contemporary novels which would have offered such hazards to screen translation. The fact that painstaking care and rich resources were expended on their conversion into films may not reflect well on the essential wisdom of producers, but it attests to their courage and integrity….”

[ An appreciation of The Good Earth will be harvested for Mother’s Day. ]

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