Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
1937, 132 min., Black-and-White
Columbia Pictures/Sony
Not rated (would be PG for brief long-distance nudity and some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B
Amazon link

“In these days of wars and rumors 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?” an opening card reads. “Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia. Sometimes the Fountain of Youth. Sometimes merely ‘that little chicken farm.’”

That’s how Frank Capra’s 1937 adaptation of James Hilton’s novel begins, and it’s a tip-off that despite an action-packed opening evacuation scene set in China, a plane crash that delivers the original Lost passengers to an isolated place that’s cloaked in mystery, and a mountain sequence involving a massive avalanche and harrowing escape, Lost Horizon is more of a heady melodrama than it is a typical adventure film. And that means that while it may be perfectly suitable for the whole family to watch, it will most likely interest only families with children in their later years of high school.

Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) skips the frame story and jumps right into the evacuation of “white people” who are being evacuated. Hilton’s novel was set in a different time and place, but with war brewing Capra set it in more familiar—and, for 1937 audiences, more disturbing—territory.

When diplomat Hugh Conway (renamed Robert for the film) leaves on the last plane with four other people and their plane is crash-landed in the Tibetan mountains, they make their way to the only shelter around: Shangri-La, a lamasery that’s completely cut off from the outside world, and where everyone is happy no matter what work they do. Once there, the main dramatic questions for each character become: Were they kidnapped or were they rescued? Should they stay or should they go? Shangri-La beckons some, but repels others.

The five travelers offer the same sort of variety as viewers would see two years later in Stagecoach. Joining Conway (Ronald Coleman) is his impetuous brother George (John Howard), mild-mannered paleontologist Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), con-artist Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell, who played Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life and the drunken doctor in Stagecoach), and a sarcastic woman named Gloria (Isabel Jewell) who discovers that her terminal illness seems to go into remission once they reach and spend time in Shangri-La. Given the CGI world we now live in, the sets seem average, but back in 1937 they were impressive enough for all critics to notice, and the cityscape sets took five years to build. But there was a rural component to this as well, which, for all its utopian pretenses, feels remarkably feudal. The High Lama creates a world where all the people are happy, even as they work at different jobs to contribute to society.

It’s not just that everyone in Shangri-La lives in peace and harmony. They also have everything they need, obtained over time because the mountains around them are full of gold. And for the child philosophers in your families, therein lies the film’s main contradiction that’s worth talking about. But the film’s main philosophical question is also discussion-worthy: would you want to live in a place that’s isolated from the world if doing so would enable you to live a hundred, even two hundred years? And what would you do for love? Would you stay in a place like that to be with Sondra (Jane Wyatt), as Conway contemplates? Would you leave, as Maria (Margo) does, risking life itself to be with someone you loved? And why is it that utopias always fail? Is it human nature? Is it the nature of life itself?

Lost Horizon is a thought-provoking drama that’s worth watching if for no other reason than to be aware of this culturally significant film. It did, after all, give us the name “Shangri-La,” which has since become synonymous with a utopian paradise on earth.

Take note, though, that this was Hollywood in the Thirties, so “white people” play the main ethnic parts as well. H.B. Warner appears as Chang, someone who came to the lamastery many years ago and now apparently runs the place, while Sam Jaffe is the High Lama, whom contemporary viewers may suspect was a model for George Lucas’s Yoda. As I said, the film is culturally significant, and Sony/Columbia Pictures completely restored the film in 4K, combining existing prints to create a film with a 132-minute runtime driven by the original audio track for the original release. Sony was so dedicated to presenting this film as it originally played that they made the brave decision to leave in several spots with missing footage and substitute photographic stills to preserve the continuity of the story as Capra wanted to tell it.

The sets are sumptuous (though it’s too bad they couldn’t have filmed in color, as Capra wanted), the performances are taut, and there are a few sappy Capracorn moments to remind you that you’re watching a director who never shied away from the edge of sentimentality.

Lost Horizon comes in digibook packaging, with some great production photos and a substantial essay to complement some nice electronic features. Sony did a remarkable job on this Blu-ray, and film fans ought to be pleased.

Language: Nothing here
Sex: A woman who had been swimming nude is show from WAY afar as she leaves and we can make out her posterior and breasts; little children are shown from behind as they jump into that same natural pool
Violence: A man throws himself off a cliff, people shoot at others, plus other minor instances
Adult situations: Wartime violence, drinking, smoking
Takeaway: If we’re talking about Lost Horizon as a film in the context of family viewing, the dialog-driven nature of it and the black-and-white film stock will land it in the B range; in a broader context, it’s more of an A-