Sony // 1973 // 149 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // December 4th, 2011
And John Gielgud...as Chang.
The 1973 remake of the 1937 classic Lost Horizon wasn't just a bad movie, it was a colossal failure and a major embarrassment to all involved. It was the final theatrical film for Ross Hunter, one-time wildly successful producer of audience-pleasing goop like Airport, and sullied the reputations of composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, writer Larry Kramer, most of the actors, and especially choreographer Hermes Pan. It was slated to be shown at a special command performance for Britain's royal family, an honor that was canceled after the terrible reviews came out. Even some last-minute editing, including the elimination of an entire dance sequence, couldn't save this thing from failure.
So poorly regarded was Lost Horizon that, after its brief, initial run, the film was basically locked away; Columbia never even released it on VHS, although a laser disc turned up in the early '90s.
For bad movie enthusiasts, Lost Horizon has been something of a Holy Grail. Now Sony, through its on-demand line, offers up not only the first DVD incarnation of Lost Horizon (1973), but re-inserts the previously excised footage. Bad movie fans, hold on to your hats -- and your lunch.
Fleeing an uprising in a remote Far East province, five people board a plane to safety. The passengers are diplomat Richard Conway (Peter Finch, Network); his hot-headed brother, George (Michael York, Logan's Run); Sam Cornelius, an engineer (George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke); Sally Hughes, a neurotic journalist (Sally Kellerman, M*A*S*H); and Harry Lovett, a comedian (Bobby Van, Kiss Me Kate).
Unfortunately, their flight is hijacked; even more unfortunately, it crashes in the mountains somewhere near "the end of civilization."
Ah, but there's good news: Despite a raging blizzard, a group of Asian men (led by John Gielgud as "Chang") happen upon our travelers and take them back to their village.
But this is no ordinary village: it's Shangri-La, a place where the sun always shines, no one gets sick, nobody ages, everyone is always blissfully happy, and people sing and dance the days away while wearing colorful silk robes.
Will our cynical and ragtag bunch make it back to civilization as they know it? Or is Shangri-La just too good a bet to pass up?
The thought of remaking Lost Horizon probably wasn't a terrible idea at the time; neither, necessarily, was the decision to make it a musical, since this is, after all, the story of the happiest ecumenical place on Earth. Although original musicals weren't faring all too well at the time -- witness such critical and commercial losers as Dr. Dolittle, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Darling Lili -- Hunter lined up recent Oscar winners Burt Bacharach and Hal David to do the songs.
Having just come off the success of the star-studded disaster epic Airport, Hunter put together a multi-demographic-pleasing cast of international names. For high-brow filmgoers, Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann; for young filmgoers, Olivia Hussey (late of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet) and Michael York; for older filmgoers, John Gielgud and Charles Boyer (as the High Lama, of all things); hipsters could see Sally Kellerman, and since there seems to have been an MPAA rule at the time that any film involving a plane crash had to include George Kennedy, the big guy was also along for the ride.
Plus, the director was Charles Jarrott, who'd done the crowd-pleasing spectacle Anne of the Thousand Days; and Lost Horizon would be rated G -- a festival of fun for the whole family!
How could it go wrong?
Lots of ways.
For openers, with the exception of Bobby Van, Hunter failed to cast his major roles with anyone who could sing or dance. This isn't terribly unusual -- Marni Nixon has made quite a good living ghost-singing for musically challenged marquee names.
But this leads to two of the biggest culprits in the Lost Horizon saga: the music and the dancing. To call the score by Bacharach and David "not hummable" is charitable; the blasted thing's barely listenable, a wretched combination of Tin Pan Alley and dentist drill, with tone-deaf tunesmanship and inane lyrics. The music is ably abetted by Hermes Pan's appalling dance sequences.
This is also one long sucker, clocking in at an astounding 149 minutes. Now, were these 149 entertaining minutes, it would be one thing, but so little happens in Lost Horizon, and what does happen is so tedious and inconsequential, that the length becomes punishing.
It's also unnecessary: the hijacking business is so drawn out, we don't even get to Shangri-La until 35 minutes in; the ending features around 35 minutes of people fleeing Shangri-La and mucking around in the snow.
For a big-budget film, the quasi-Asian paradise looks amazingly tacky, with a distinctly Grauman's Chinese vibe. Nonetheless, our visitors are politely awestruck.
Shortly after arriving, bitter Sally decides it's time to end it all and jump off a balcony; however, she's stopped by Chang Gielgud, who soothes her with a few random platitudes. It seems everyone in Shangri-La talks in random platitudes; I'm guessing their major export is comforting phrases for greeting card companies.
Chang's actually done Sally no favor, because a few minutes later, we are assaulted with the first song-and-dance number, this one delivered by the audaciously untalented Olivia Hussey as Maria, who seems to have no purpose other than to sing, dance, and complain.
Despite a performance that suggests she's been blindfolded, spun around, and left in the woods, she's apparently the lead dancer at the Shangri-La canteen. She catches the eye of hot-head George, and soon, they're a couple.
From there, the dreadful music and dance numbers pretty much take over, and they are not pretty sights.
Richard meets his lady friend, Catherine the school teacher (Ullmann), as she's leading the children of Shangri-La (the Shangri-Larvae) in a dreadful number, "The World Is a Circle (Without a Beginning)." I'm guessing this was Bacharach/David's answer to The Sound of Music's "Doe, a Deer," but it's so clunky and clumsy, they might as well have called it "Kitten, a Rhinoceros."
Maybe choreographer Pan was advised to go easy on Ullmann; her "dancing" consists of swaying, waving her arms, and marching the Shangri-Larvae through a field.
Of course, since people in Shangri-La don't age, these might not be children at all, merely 80-year-olds in the bodies of children. In any case, they look thoroughly embarrassed by the musical ordeal and end up throwing themselves on the ground and desperately rolling away from the uncoordinated school marm. Doesn't matter, Richard is hooked anyway.
Later, Harry the Comedian subs for her so she and Richard can frolic in the fields. We know Harry's a comedian because he laughs whenever he says anything -- "Can I have some pot roast? HA HA HA!" "My toe has gangrene! HA HA HA!" He teaches the children to give answers before asking questions, thus bringing Jeopardy! to this far-flung paradise.
Despite its lack of any kind of musical hook or meaningful lyric, "The World Is a Circle" actually enjoyed some sort of odd, Middle American popularity for a while, with muzak versions gracing office waiting areas and performances at grade-school pageants a fairly common occurrence. Another big production number, however, didn't quite have the same staying power.
Like a bar that celebrates New Year's Eve every night, every day in Shangri-La is parade day, and our visitors are in for a treat: It's Family Day, highlighted by a musical extravaganza called "Living Together, Growing Together," which features chanting monks and a couple passing a baby back and forth like it's a hot potato -- or maybe it's a 40-year-old man, you know, that "no aging" thing. The lyrics here are revelatory: "Start with a man, you have one; add on a woman, and then you have two; add on a child...and you've got more than three," suggesting that Liv Ullmann's math lessons are no better than her dancing; frankly, I preferred the "What's a family?" lesson from The Wicker Man.
The amateurishly staged Family Festival would have been the nadir for Lost Horizon were it not for what follows: The Fertility Dance, a scene that preview audiences pretty much laughed off screen. It was cut from the theatrical release, but has been restored here, and it is totally worth it.
Apparently, in the ever-tolerant Shangri-La, nothing says "fertility" like a bunch of oiled-up muscle boys cavorting in orange diapers and waving streamers while twirling, ring-around-the-rosying, and tossing dancin' queen Maria about like a comatose cheerleader. While these boys seem unlikely to ever procreate, there's comfort to be taken by the fact that, nearly 40 years later, Lost Horizon has lost none of its power to shock -- however unintentionally.
Meanwhile, at the Shangri-La YMCA...
The sight of this homoerotic tomfoolery naturally brings our couples closer, and even inspires George Kennedy to seduce Sally Kellerman while she's dressed like a kung-fu action hero and dancing on a rock.
From there, it's just a long lumber to the finish. Despite the threat of having to listen to tuneless and sappy Bacharach/David songs for the next century, everyone decides to stay in the mountaintop paradise -- except malcontent George, who wants to show the lovely Maria off to the rest of the world. Maria, who doesn't want to end up like one of those "damned to dance for eternity" strippers from Orgy of the Dead, isn't beyond a little truth-finessing to get the heck out of Shangri-Dodge. Meanwhile, George and Richard discover a little secret about their hijacking that makes the Shangri-Lalas and their High Lama seem a bit opportunistic -- not to mention dishonest -- but Richard's OK with it.
George, on the other hand, plans his escape with Maria, forgetting that other little secret about Shangri-La -- the one where people look all airbrushed and younger than they really are because they're in S-L. Bad move, George, particularly when your feelings about your cranky lady love have more to do with her creamy complexion than her sparkling wit and ability to fake a dance step.
That's pretty much all she wrote. Rudimentary life lessons along the lines of "sharing is caring" are doled out through tacky musical numbers -- the opening-credits theme even tries to go a little political, asking: "have you ever dreamed of a place...where the sound of guns doesn't pound in your ears" (yes, that's really a lyric). There are also endless scenes of Finch and Ullmann doing dull and repetitive musical interior monologues dubbed by people who sound as much like them as Melanie Griffith sounds like Marlene Dietrich. It's enough to make you wish for an avalanche.
This is a film fails on virtually every level. It looks cheap, the actors are bland and have no chemistry, the pacing is wretched, the philosophizing is less profound than what you'd find in a fortune cookie, the dialogue is atrocious -- Hunter seems to have been so desperate to put together a blockbuster that he just figured a few songs and an obscenely long running time was all he needed.
Sony has put out Lost Horizon as part of its on-demand line (Sony Screen Classics by Request). Generally, there's not a lot of care put into these discs, and supplemental material is pretty much non-existent.
For Lost Horizon, Sony steps up the on-demand game. The widescreen, letterboxed transfer looks very good, pretty much blemish-free, with vivid colors and decent contrast. The mono audio track is clean and clear; I've read that new pressings of the film will have a 5.1 surround track.
Remarkably, Sony has included some worthwhile supplements, which is pretty much unheard of in the on-demand realm. We start with demo recordings of the songs by Burt Bacharach played over still shots from the film. Next, we get a pair of archival promotional featurettes with producer Ross Hunter. There's an alternate version of one of the songs, and trailers. I've seen wide-releases of recent -- and good -- films that haven't delivered this kind of package.
It's not the worst movie ever made; I don't know that it's even the worst musical ever made, or the worst remake, or the worst big studio production of the '70s. What it is, mainly, is a tedious and laughable pile of hokum that became an expensive flop. Bad movie books have elevated its train-wreck status a bit higher than it deserves; this doesn't make it any less of a cinematic abomination, just a less notable one than you might expect.
Lost Horizon might be a dreadful movie, but Sony has turned out a pretty respectable disc. Bad movie lovers -- especially those with a strong stomach and high pain threshold -- should be thrilled with this release.
A surprisingly not guilty release from Sony of an unquestionably guilty film.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 149 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Alternate Scene
* Song Demos
* TV Spots