Lost Horizon (1937)

Frank Capra | 2hr 12min

Even as Lost Horizon’s narrative travels to distant fantasy lands of the East and centres a group of British expats, it still isn’t that far outside Frank Capra’s usual idealistic ruminations over the American Dream. The utopian city Shangri-La and the surrounding Himalayan mountains make for epic cinematic canvases, as he builds set pieces around crowds and unusual architectural structures that could seemingly only exist in this mystical, untouched paradise. Just as the snake brought corruption into the Garden of Eden though, so too do the Brits of Lost Horizon bring cynicism to Shangri-La, tainting its purity with colonial sensibilities that struggle to reconcile its simple, blissful happiness with the western world they are used to.

The xenophobia of these characters is evident right from the opening titles where we learn of diplomat Robert Conway’s mission to rescue the last 90 white people from the fictional city of Baskul amid a revolution, while crowds of locals clambering to board the private plane are callously pushed aside without a second thought. Their privilege is clearly one they take for granted, as when their plane is hijacked and crashed in the Himalayas, they quickly find themselves far removed from their comfort zone. “What a kick I’m going to get watching you squirm for a change,” bites one of the stranded passengers, the terminally ill Gloria. She is evidently no stranger to hardship, and is ready to embrace her demise if it means seeing those haughty men go down with her.

Chaos in Baskul, crowds around this private plane.

By a stroke of good fortune though, these survivors unexpectedly encounter a mysterious man in these freezing mountains, who leads them to a temperate valley shielded on all sides from the harsh weather. Some continue to hold onto their frustration throughout their stay, refusing to move past their mistrust even when Shangri-La’s magical properties are revealed. Others who do integrate into this society manage to do so happily, letting go of connections to their old life, while others still cannot help bringing in pieces of western infrastructure and education. The irony of them feeling the need to alter perfection to suit their own familiar sensibilities even borders on satirical.

Fantastic set pieces even before we get to Shangri-La, as the Brits traverse the craggy Himalayan mountains.

It is Capra’s gorgeous construction of an entire fantastical city and the snowy, craggy peaks which surround it which mark Lost Horizon as a particularly marvellous visual achievement though. Splendid matte paintings blend seamlessly with his practical sets of towering mountains through which small, black figures hike, but once we enter Shangri-La’s great halls it is the cluttered décor that dominates the mise-en-scène in a Sternbergian manner, framing shots with candles and fruit bowls standing in foregrounds. The promised abundance of Shangri-La is virtually always on show, even as we escape into the outdoors where, through hanging branches and leaves, we watch one local woman, Sondra, bathe in a hidden waterhole, drawing heavenly comparisons to Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Exquisite frames created from fruit bowls and candles, an abundance of riches.
Capra using tree branches and leaves to frame an image of paradise.

The giant, central palace of Shangri-La is Capra’s most resourceful set piece here, the structure being a giant, blank façade with a vertical strip running down the middle where an ornate gate opens to the inside. Down the front of the building, a flight of stone stairs leads to a pond where Capra delights in capturing picturesque reflections and symmetrical compositions, crafting an awe-inspiring majesty around the city. As the finale draws near, he goes on to stage a ceremony around this dazzling piece of architecture that sees hundreds of extras trail across the garden and steps carrying fire torches, lighting up the darkness in tight formations.

Easily one of Capra’s greatest set designs. He returns to the structure many times and always finds new ways to block his actors around it.

Just as there is deep reverence in these large set pieces, so too is it there in the stylistic minimalism of scenes spent with the mysterious High Lama, the centuries-old founder of Shangri-La who dispenses wisdom from his small, bare room. Where copious displays of wealth crowds out Capra’s sets elsewhere, here the space is simply lit by a single candle standing between him and Conway, who visits the elder to learn more of Shangri-La’s history and principled philosophy.

Refreshing minimalism in the High Lama’s room – transcendent spiritualism.

There is a fragility to the precision of Capra’s visual and narrative creations in Lost Horizon, establishing an order that we realise will be breached by the end of the film by nature of its own archetypal setup. The innocence and magic of Shangri-La cannot survive in the real world where all things naturally deteriorate and perish, and as these horrific consequences set in, he also pays off on this grand fable of virtue and impiety. For every moral transgression in Lost Horizon, there is also some dark manifestation of justice that sets things right, powerfully backing up Capra’s storytelling with potent mythological archetypes of paradise, innocence, and soul-corrupting sin.

A wonderful use of matte paintings to build out Capra’s fantasy world.

Lost Horizon is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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