“In these days of wars and rumours of wars — haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” Good question, easy answer: Duh.
Yes. Yes now, in 2014, and yes in 1937, when those words opened up Lost Horizon, Frank Capra’s big screen contemplation of what happens when regular folks are given the opportunity to live forever in a kind of heaven that exists here on earth.
The film is an adaptation of James Hilton’s eponymous 1933 novel, which — fun fact — is Pocket Book #1, and thus often cited as the first mass-market American paperback. The story follows a quintet of Westerners, rounded up by dashing diplomat Bob Conway, who barely escape a revolutionary uprising in China. Their small plane is hijacked, however, and a crash landing in the Himalayan hinterlands kills the pilot on impact.
It seems like all hope is lost in the snowy, sub-zero mountains, but they’re rescued by a (miraculously English-speaking) group of Tibetan who lead them to a sunny, temperate haven that incongruously exists smack-dab in the middle of the mountainous terrain.
They have been welcomed into Shangri-La.
Hilton actually coined the name and created the place, which has since become a kind of catch-all synonym for utopia. In Capra’s cinematic interpretation, it’s a verdant — implied, of course, as it’s filmed in soft-focus black-and-white — valley complete with waterfalls, horseback rides, glorious collections of art and literature, babbling brooks, and grand architecture that’s some kind of classical Frank Lloyd Wrightian-style with an Asian flair.
They practice a “religion” of moderation; the future is bright, and there’s no need to accumulate wealth in order to prepare for it. It’s idyllic and peaceful — everything that the civil chaos they escaped from and roiling snowstorms just beyond Shangri-La’s borders were not — yet initial reactions are not only sceptical, but highly suspicious. “It’s too mysterious,” one of the travellers says. The existence of such a place must be some kind of magic; that it is a flesh-and-blood reality is, at first, too tough to comprehend.
Which is actually an interesting conundrum. Imagine it: What if, by some twist of fate, you were unexpectedly transported to a town where all the “rules” that govern life as we know it just ceased to exist? I’d like to think that I would be able to relax and enjoy it, but in all honesty, a part of me feels like I would be too anxious to chill.
Eventually, a rift develops between Conway and his brother, George, who is also amongst those who found their way into this wonderland; the former has been tapped to lead the community, while the latter feels they have been duped, and believes that the place is more cult than bliss.
That’s another element that seems essential to one’s appreciation of Shangri-La: Belief. Those who cast aside their misgivings are able to fully revel in the bounty; those who don’t, can’t. But I also got the sense that a utopia like that — or like anything — would never work on a grander, global scale because, well, humans just don’t have it in them. We’d never be able to settle into such an existence, but also there would be no way to create something that appealed to everyone’s sense of “perfection.”
There’s actually been much speculation on Shangri-La’s real-world counterpart and Hilton’s inspiration, which strikes me as particularly fascinating — a very human desire to draw a comparison to somewhere that doesn’t exist, but, goddamnit, it should.
Watching the film itself is an interesting experience. A disclaimer at the start explains that the original 132 minute feature was trimmed down over the years, until eventually no copies of that version remained and the existing nitrate camera negative deteriorated. A full-length soundtrack was found, and later played over restored footage; in the spots where no footage existed, production stills were shown.
All in all, this is a great film; a must-see for those questing after — and questioning — their own concept of Shangri-La.
*Important note: I haven’t had the chance to watch the 1973 remake, a musical flop and critical failure that nonetheless sounds strangely intriguing.