Sony // 1937 // 134 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // December 13th, 1999
Paradise in Earth.
Frank Capra is one of our best-loved filmmakers. Every Christmas we shower more praise on him for It's a Wonderful Life. Then there's Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and so many more. But, are you familiar with Lost Horizon? If not, then you should be. Lost Horizon is a true American classic, and it's survival tells a wonderful history lesson about America and American culture.
When Frank Capra made Lost Horizon in 1937, the film ran about 132 minutes. Shortly after it was introduced, the film was cut down a bit. Then, after America's involvement in WWII became a reality, the film was altered again, this time substantively, to paint the Japanese (who were not even present in the original film) as the bad guys, and to tone down the film's pacifist message. Nothing like a bit of propaganda, eh?
Over time, about 25 minutes of the film were lost, some said for good. Then Robert Gitt and Columbia embarked upon a massive restoration effort in 1973. The effort lasted 25 years! And the result is this outstanding DVD version of a true American classic.
The other fascinating fact about Lost Horizon is that it was a tremendous risk when Columbia financed it. The film cost more than the traditional annual budget of the studio, and had it bombed at the box office, Columbia most surely would have sunk with it. Not only the subject matter, but the film itself is the stuff of legends. The dollars involved, the sets, the production values. It was quite clearly the Titanic of its day. And Capra pulled it off. Every bit of it.
Lost Horizon begins in China where English statesman Robert Conway is aiding in the escape and evacuation of refugees from war-torn China. Conway escapes on the last plane out, with a gaggle of other characters, including his brother George, Barnard the fugitive from justice, Lovett the archaeologist, and a panic-stricken blonde named Gloria. The problem is the plane has been hijacked and is being flown not towards Shanghai, but away from it! The plane stops on its journey and is immediately refueled by a group of waiting locals and immediately takes off again. Finally, the pilot loses consciousness and the plane crashes in the far off region of Tibet, well outside any civilization and the group smells doom directly ahead.
During the second day in the freezing mountains, the group is set upon by what appears to be a wandering band of locals, bundled for warmth. They carry warm clothing and set off for their village with the survivors in tow. After a long trek through treacherous mountain passes, the group enters a hollow in a rock and sees what appears to be a mirage -- a warm paradise of sorts set high in the mountains. The various members of the group react in different ways, displaying their inner demons along the way. Lovett is terrified and believes the locals to be flesh-eating cannibals. Gloria (who is bedeviled with tuberculosis) was set to die in the cold and is now hateful of the fact she is still alive. Conway is merely curious, ever the researcher and dreamer, he cannot understand why this place exists and wants to know more.
The place is Shangri-La. Supposedly created by a Priest in the 1700s, Shangri-La is filled with beautiful marble structures, idyllic waterfalls, beautiful fountains and is populated with hardworking, creative, loving people, each out for no more gain than to ply their craft and teach others. We are led to believe this utopian society is the perfect place, so far removed from civilization as to be unaffected by the petty jealousies the rest of the world struggles under. I don't want to give away too much more of the story for those of you who haven't seen the film, but it will not fail to entertain.
Lost Horizon is filled with solid performances. Ronald Colman (Beau Geste, A Tale of Two Cities, The Prisoner of Zenda) is curious and stoic as Conway. While he may not be quite as affable as Capra's usual leading man (i.e. Jimmy Stewart), he is nevertheless perfect in this role. A young Jane Wyatt (Gentleman's Agreement, My Blue Heaven is beautiful as Sondra, the young woman who resides in Shangri-La and falls for Conway. Edward Everett Horton (It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Arsenic and Old Lace) is perfect as Lovett and Thomas Mitchell (It's a Wonderful Life, The Fighting Sullivans) is great as Barnard. I struggled throughout the film to remember where I had heard Horton's voice before, then it hit me. He was the narrator to the "Fractured Fairy Tales" throughout the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.
The best part of this disc is clearly the restoration work that was done over a 25-year period. First the film was nearly completely restored to its 132 minute running time. Unfortunately, there are seven minutes of footage that remain lost, but a complete soundtrack was indeed discovered. Columbia's method for dealing with this problem is to keep the soundtrack running and place a still photograph of the character that is speaking on the screen. It may sound a bit weird, but it works wonderfully. And it is a better solution than cutting the complete soundtrack, in my opinion. Beyond simply finding the elements, Columbia has done quite a bit of amazing restoration work. There is little doubt of this after you cycle through the restoration comparison that is included with the disc.
The video quality does vary quite a bit, which is bound to happen when several different copies of the film are utilized in a restoration effort such as this. Some of the stock used is 16mm and it shows in a softening of the video and a bit of blurring. Moreover, certain scenes take on a grayer quality than others, which are crisp blacks and whites. All in all the video is very well done though. Generally, there is just a bit of softness and some graininess too. All to be expected in this type of film.
In addition to all the goodies laid out above, we are treated to a commentary track with noted film critic Charles Champlin and UCLA film restoration expert Robert Gitt. I like the way this is set forth, almost as though Champlin were interviewing Gitt. It makes for a wonderful back and forth rather than the way some commentaries are so wishy-washy as though some people don't know when to talk. There is a gaggle of additional extras too, like a photo documentary with commentary, production notes, deleted scenes and even an alternate ending. Essentially this is a Criterion disc without the involvement of Criterion. Major kudos to Columbia for stepping up to the plate on this one.
I have only a few minor complaints about the film and only one small one about the disc. Let's tackle the disc first. Throw it in and press play and the disc defaults to English subtitles. That means you've got to cycle through all seven subtitle languages to get to the off position. So, be sure to handle this in the setup menu before you start the film.
My complaint about the film is with the nature of Shangri-La itself. I know times were different back then, and people seemed to want an alternative to war first and foremost. But Shangri-La seems to me to have way too many communistic overtones. Everyone will simply do his or her job regardless of the profit involved. It just seems a bit too simplistic. Don't get me wrong, every person I've ever met or read about who actually believed a communist system would work probably had a place like this in mind. The point is we've proved them all wrong over the past 100 years. Communism doesn't work, but Capitalism does. I don't mean to get all preachy, but the film itself offended my sensibilities a bit. If you take the film as it is, kind of a fantasy adventure with grand sweeping vistas, you may not be as affected by it as I was. Don't get me wrong, it was and is a terrific film and reflects the sensibilities of its day. It just seems out of place a bit in today's society.
Lost Horizon is a terrific film by a legendary director that was nearly lost forever. I can't encourage you more -- buy this disc. It deserves to be watched again and again. This film deserves a spot next to Grand Illusion and the other restored classics in your collection. The extras alone make it worth the price.
The film is acquitted. Columbia gets a gold star for putting forth a tremendous effort in restoring this American Legend.
Review content copyright © 1999 Sean McGinnis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 1937
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Notes
* Three Deleted Scenes
* Photo Documentary with narration by Historian Kendall Miller
* Restoration Commentary by noted Film Critic Charles Champlin and UCLA Film Restoration Expert Robert Gitt
* Theatrical Trailer
* Restoration Comparison (Before and After)
* Alternative Ending