Follow TV Tropes


Film / Lost Horizon

Go To

Lost Horizon is a 1937 film based on the novel of the same name by British author James Hilton (of Goodbye, Mr. Chips fame), directed by Frank Capra and starring Ronald Colman.

British diplomat, soldier, adventurer, writer, and proto-Indiana Jones hero Robert Conway (Colman) is sent off into a remote part of China to rescue a group of westerners caught in a war zone. He and his brother George (John Howard) board the last plane out with a motley group that includes paleontologist Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), swindler Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), and Gloria (Isabel Jewell), a hooker with an Incurable Cough of Death. However, Conway and his charges soon discover that they have been hijacked by a person pretending to be their pilot. The plane runs out of fuel and crashes deep in the Himalayas along the border of China and Tibet. The pilot dies before he can explain himself, but shortly afterward the survivors are found by an expedition from a lamasery in the nearby valley of Shangri-La. Conway and the rest of the passengers are taken in by the lamasery, where they uncover a mystery.

The novel was filmed again in 1973 as a spectacular musical, directed by Charles Jarrot and featuring an All-Star Cast including Liv Ullmann, Peter Finch, Michael York, George Kennedy, Olivia Hussey, Sally Kellerman, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, and James Shigeta. It flopped hard.

When the negative of the 1937 film was restored in The '70s, it was decayed so badly that seven minutes could not be salvaged. However, an intact soundtrack was found. The film as it exists today uses still pictures along with dialogue to illustrate those seven minutes.

Tropes applicable to both the 1937 and 1973 films:

  • Adaptational Name Change:
    • Hugh Conway becomes in Robert Conway (1937) and Richard Conway (1973), and Mallinson becomes George Conway.
    • The 1973 film changes Sondra to Catherine, Gloria Stone to Sally Hughes, Henry Barnard to Sam Cornelius, and Alexander Lovett to Harry Lovett.
  • Age Without Youth: Averted—you live long and age proportionately in Shangri-La.
  • All for Nothing: The unhappy George's decision to leave Shangi-La with Maria so they can be happy in the outside world. They both end up dead because of it.
  • Canon Foreigner: Lovett, Gloria and Sondra (Catherine in the '73 film) aren't in the book.
  • The Chosen One: Conway was specially selected to go to Shangri-La, and the other passengers were considered wonderful, accidental additions to the lamasery who all (excepting Conway's brother George) find reasons to be happy there.
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong: George doesn't trust the people of Shangri-La at all, never warms up to the place's ways, and is desperate to get back to The Outside World, and Maria is also bored with her life there and makes the arrangements for them and the reluctant Robert to escape. For this, both George and Maria end up dead—when she succumbs to Rapid Aging thanks to No Immortal Inertia, he is Driven to Suicide. Robert survives only to return to Shangri-La as soon as is possible.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Henry (Sam in the 1973 version) isn't upfront about who he is to his fellow travelers. After some time in Shangri-La he admits that he was, once, a notorious corporate bigwig whose business dealings eventually collapsed around him. He's spent his life as a fugitive since his downfall, no longer having any purpose in his life except perhaps rebuilding his fortune. He turns his original talent for engineering towards improving life for the people of Shangri-La (he designs an irrigation system for their crops), and finds true fulfillment.
  • Hair-Trigger Avalanche: Both versions have this in the final stretch as the Conway brothers and Maria try to return to The Outside World.
    • In the 1937 film, it is caused by the porters playfully fooling around with the brothers' guns and shooting them off.
    • In the 1973 film, because they're busy helping Maria, who is too weak to walk (in hindsight, she's Rapid Aging) the brothers fall behind the porters and call out to them to stop. Oops.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: Robert (or Richard) Conway, though he is professionally successful, admits to feeling a great emptiness in his life, and the fact that this comes through in his writing is what leads the higher-ups at Shangri-La to bring him there.
  • Hidden Elf Village: The people of Shangri-La are not exactly disdainful of the outside world, but their attitude can rather succinctly be summed up as smiling, shaking their heads, and saying, "What silly people."
  • Ice-Cream Koan: Surprisingly averts this. The High Lama is philosophical but straightforward in his way of expressing things. Chang is very cagey, but that's mainly because he knows that it takes a while for everyone to understand what's happening in Shangri-La.
  • Jerkass: George hates Shangri-La, and he isn't bashful about letting his opinion be known, either.
  • Lost World: The high mountains all around mean that no one ever goes to Shangri-La except the porters that visit once every few years.
  • MacGuffin Location: Shangri-La may be the setting of most of the film and the ultimate goal of most of the characters, especially Conway, but the film is more about how Shangri-La affects the characters (such as Gloria recovering from her tuberculosis, Lovett learning to relax and enjoy himself, and especially Conway finding a sense of purpose in life) than about the place itself.
  • Mighty Whitey:
    • Featuring a modern Mighty Whitey in the 1930s, when the old-fashioned version was still in vogue. The mostly Chinese and Tibetan monks there prove themselves to be wise, intelligent, competent, and well-rounded characters. However, the white Conway turns out to be better at being a monk than the best of the Tibetans, and it turns out that the founder and leader of the monastery is a European who arrived in the 15th century. Unfortunately, the 1973 version keeps all of this.
    • Also applies to the Henry/Sam subplot in both versions in that it takes a white guy to finally bring a crop irrigation system to the Asian peasants of Shangri-La!
  • No Immortal Inertia: The inhabitants of Shangri-La do age, but much more slowly there than they would do in the outside world. As Maria demonstrates, if they leave the village, they quickly advance to the age they would be if they had never been to Shangri-La.
  • Opportunistic Bastard: George, who doesn't buy the Lama or Shangri-La as real, convinces Robert to leave the paradise, so George can be with Maria.
  • The Outside World: Shangri-La is hidden from the rest of the world in the Himalayan mountains. Visitors can come and go (though due to its location very few visit) but natives face a terrible price for leaving.
  • Rapid Aging: Happens to Maria when the Conway brothers take her with them as they attempt to return to the outside world. As they trek through the mountains after their porters have been buried in an avalanche, a horrified George screams, "Bob! Bob, look at her face! Her face, look at her face!", and we see a lifeless, wrinkled old woman's face.
  • Related in the Adaptation: Conway's aide Mallinson from the book becomes his brother George in both films.
  • The Shangri-La: Shangri-La fits the description perfectly, a mysterious yet idyllic village nestled in the Himalayas tended to by people who have cast off the stresses and strains of the world beyond, accessible only with the help of insiders.
  • Utopia: Shangri-La. Through moderation in all things moral and material, the inhabitants are all (with one or two exceptions), to quote Chang, "more than moderately happy."
  • Yellowface:
    • The very British H.B. Warner plays Chang, the #2 man at Shangri-La.
    • In the 1973 film, Chang is played by another Brit, Sir John Gielgud. (The producer wanted Toshiro Mifune, but he turned it down.)

The 1937 film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The final scene has Conway return to Shangri-La, while the novel left it ambiguous if he would ever make it back.
  • Adaptational Nationality: Father Perrault was from Luxembourg in the novel but it's changed to Belgium here. Also the novel's Lo-Tsen, who's Chinese, becomes the film's Maria, who's Russian.
  • Adapted Out: Miss Brinklow, a Christian missionary, is a member of the group who goes to Shangri-La in the book but doesn't appear here. Ross Hunter reportedly wanted to reinstate the character for the 1973 version with Barbara Stanwyck in the role, but she said no, so Brinklow didn't appear there either.
  • Bowdlerize: One of the reasons that the film now exists in mostly complete form was due to the studio reissuing the film in periods where some elements would be considered controversial. The first re-release was in 1942, and the anti-war elements were toned down for WWII-era audiences. 10 years later, the film was reissued again, though since it was at the height of the Red Scare, the studio eliminated anything that would give the illusion that the film was "pro-Communist."
  • Despair Event Horizon: George charges over it after seeing Maria age half a century and die in a matter of hours after leaving Shangri-La, and runs headlong over a cliff to his death.
  • Determinator: When Conway is rescued, he is absolutely determined to return to Shangri-La, and in the film's penultimate scene, Lord Gainsford tells the members of the Embassy Club in London the stories he has heard of Conway learning to fly and stealing an Army plane, making six attempts to cross a supposedly impassible mountain ridge, fighting off six guards to escape from a Tibetan jail after being imprisoned for stealing food and clothing, and leading the local military on a wild goose chase through their own country.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Lovett and Barnard don't even know each other at the start of the film but quickly become Vitriolic Best Buds and seem well on their way to becoming this.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Subverted, in that Gloria's incurable cough of death actually is cured by the magic of Shangri-La.
  • Skinnydipping: Including a rather daring scene for 1937, in which Jane Wyatt's body double actually leaves the pool while nude. Shot from a considerable distance away, but still.
  • Stock Footage: A few shots of snowy mountain peaks from a documentary were used to make this film more realistic.

The 1973 film adds the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Job Change:
    • Gloria (renamed Sally Hughes) was a prostitute in the original. Here, she's a magazine journalist.
    • Lovett goes from being a successful paleontologist to a failed song-and-dance man.
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: In fact, this is the second attempt at a Lost Horizon musical.
  • Beta Couple: Sam and Sally have a much easier time falling and being in love than Richard and Catherine — while the former couple is content to stay in Shangri-La forever, Richard keeps being urged by his brother to leave, which would mean leaving Catherine behind.
  • Bittersweet Ending: After Richard is named the Lama's successor, George convinces Richard to reluctantly leave the paradise of Shangri-La. After George's and Maria's demise, it takes some time before Richard finds the way back to Shangri-La.
  • Book Ends: The Title Theme Tune opens and closes the film.
  • Crowd Song: Several — "The World Is a Circle", "Living Together, Growing Together", and "Question Me an Answer" once the kids join in.
  • Decomposite Character: The female Shangri-La native Lo-Tsen is split into the male Lo-Tenn and the female Maria (who was the renamed Lo-Tsen in the 1937 film).
  • Duet of Differences: "The Things I Will Not Miss" crosses this trope with "I Want" Song for Sally and Maria, who agree to disagree about what they want out of life. The chorus even features the phrase "Different people look at life from different points of view". Interestingly, the film passes The Bechdel Test because of this song.
  • Dull Surprise: Let's be blunt: much of the cast comes off as disinterested in the movie. Even at the very beginning, when the main characters are fleeing civil unrest, they seem very blasé about the whole thing.
  • Grass is Greener: Inverted for Maria, who wants to leave peaceful, contented, simple Shangri-La for the glamorous, exciting outside world (this is thanks in part to her conversations with George). Sally warns her that though there are some nice things out there, there's also war, corruption, etc.; this leads into "The Things I Will Not Miss".
  • If It Bleeds, It Leads: Sally's career as a photojournalist ended up having to work under this trope. Witnessing and recording atrocities for the titillation of readers who wouldn't give much thought to the horrors they represented resulted in her becoming depressed and ultimately drug-addicted.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Sally (this film's equivalent to Gloria) is a depressed, drug-addicted journalist whose state of mind is not improved by the events of the first act. As everyone is settling into Shangri-La, she reaches a Despair Event Horizon and prepares to jump out of a window into the chasm below, only to be interrupted by Chang, who talks her down. With the lamas' help, she gradually gets better from here.
  • "I Want" Song: "The Things I Will Not Miss". Sally wants to stay in Shangri-La while Maria wants to see The Outside World; each is tired of the very things the other wants.
  • Mood Whiplash: Arguably the film's main problem. After a non-musical opening stretch, it goes from scenes that are okay (if a bit slavish) modernizations of the original film's into musical numbers patterned after The Sound of Music or The King and I, totally breaking the flow.
  • Musical World Hypotheses: Mostly Alternate Universe. Not counting the Title Theme Tune performed by an offscreen singer, there are no musical numbers in the opening and closing stretches of the film, which are set in The Outside World. Only in Shangri-La do characters sing. There are also two Diegetic numbers in Shangri-La, "Share the Joy" and "Living Together, Growing Together".
  • Opportunistic Bastard: George, who not only leaves Shangri-La with Maria, but also convinces Richard to leave Shangri-La just after he had been named the next Lama.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Harry, an unsuccessful nightclub entertainer in this version, serves as this among the five travelers. His happy ending is finding a receptive audience for his hijinks in Shangri-La's children, rather than his becoming their teacher.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Burt Bacharach and Hal David were sort of in this vein. While not pop stars themselves, they were Household Names for writing countless hit songs. Their experience in composing musicals was limited to just On the Flip Side (an obscure 1966 made-for-TV musical that's sometimes considered an early Rock Opera) and Promises, Promises, however, and the failure of this film broke up the team.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: After Richard reluctantly leaves Shangri-La at George's insistence, Richard finds himself in a hospital bed, and is resolved to find his way back to Shangri-La.
  • Secondary Adaptation: This 1973 musical remake of the 1937 film includes Canon Foreigner characters (with minor changes). Both films are live-action adaptations of the 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.
  • Setting Update: To The '70s, which was The Present Day at the time. One of the problems that critics had with this version was that merely updating the setting only emphasized Values Dissonance (such as the Mighty Whitey nature of Shangri-La's leadership).
  • Shot-for-Shot Remake: The first half-hour is a tight re-enactment of the opening scenes of the Capra film, right down to the way some specific shots are framed. Even after they get to Shangri-La and the musical numbers start up, it still doesn't stray all that much from the original, especially in the final stretch as the Conways try to return to civilization.
  • Title Theme Tune: The only song in the film's opening quarter, to boot.
  • Welcoming Song: "Share the Joy", the first in-story musical number.