‘Lost Horizon’: An Epic Journey to Shangri-La

Ian Kane

R | 2h 12m | Adventure, Drama, Fantasy | 1937

Fantasy films have always been an effective way to escape the drudgery and sometimes chaos of everyday life. While many of today’s fantasy and adventure movies emphasize CGI effects over threadbare storylines and are often accompanied by hollow dialogue, films from Hollywood’s Golden Age sometimes delivered sagas of epic proportions along with highly inventive, handcrafted effects.

Speaking of epic, legendary director Frank Capra helmed a 1937 film titled “Lost Horizon” that serves as a perfect example of this golden era of cinema. The grand-scale set designs and beautiful costuming in this film are reminiscent of other epics such as 1956’s “The Ten Commandments” and 1959’s “Ben-Hur.”
“Lost Horizon” is based on a book of the same title published in 1933 by English author and screenwriter James Hilton (who coincidentally co-wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite World War II movies, “Mrs. Miniver”).

'Lost Horizon'

The film opens in dramatic fashion, as adventurer and English diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is helping to rescue a large group of Westerners from a violent revolution taking place in Baskul, China. After the evacuees are safe, he departs on one of the last planes off an embattled airstrip with four other passengers: his fresh-faced younger brother George (John Howard), the hard-boiled and sickly American Gloria (Isabel Jewell), the snooty paleontologist Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), and the shady businessman Barnard (Thomas Mitchell).
Passengers find themselves on a journey to Shangri-La, in “Lost Horizon.” (Columbia Pictures)
Passengers find themselves on a journey to Shangri-La, in “Lost Horizon.” (Columbia Pictures)

As the passengers settle into their seats and prepare for the long trip to the UK, it is revealed that Robert is to accept the position of England’s foreign secretary when he returns home. As the three other passengers bicker among themselves, Robert and George drink some shots to celebrate the new position.

Robert is later roused from his drunken slumber by the other passengers, who point out that their plane is headed in the opposite direction of where it should be going. But more shocking is the revelation that it’s been hijacked by a gun-toting Asian who is flying them to some unknown destination. As Lovett’s paranoid ramblings about their predicament create an atmosphere of doom and gloom, Robert goes back to sleep.

Later, while flying over Tibet, their plane runs out of fuel and crash-lands amid the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Although the pilot is killed instantly, the five passengers survive. However, as they are many miles from any known civilization, they ruminate over their limited options for survival as the damaged plane is buffeted by a raging snowstorm.

The Journey to Shangri-La

Suddenly, a gaggle of warmly clad people led by Chang (H.B. Warner) appears. Robert uses his smooth gift of diplomacy to good effect, and Chang offers to escort the survivors to a safe place.

The harrowing journey is long and hard, with the group traversing perilous mountain terrain. When they finally arrive at their destination, they stare dumbfounded down into a lush and tranquil valley called Shangri-La, which seems impossibly untouched by the storm they just left behind.

As the survivors begin to examine their new, seemingly utopian environs, each of them has different reactions to the place. For instance, the natural explorer in Robert wants to learn more about the mysterious valley. On the other hand, his brother George longs to return to the UK and grows increasingly determined to do so.

Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) bonds with Sondra (Jane Wyatt), in “Lost Horizon.” (Columbia Pictures)
Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) bonds with Sondra (Jane Wyatt), in “Lost Horizon.” (Columbia Pictures)

The brothers soon meet women who more or less match them well; Robert meets Sondra (Jane Wyatt), a lovely lady who was raised in Shangri-La, and George bonds with Maria (Margo), who shares his desire to leave the place. Since Shangri-La is purportedly a mystical place with magical properties, people are said to age at slower rates and live healthier lives. Indeed, Gloria gradually begins to recover from her illness after spending time there.

Amid all of the peace, love, and longevity, Robert’s curiosity begins to uncover some unusual historical information about Shangri-La. Soon, he and the others will discover a prophecy that involves the very fate of one of them.

Wonderful Performances

One of the things I enjoyed about this old-school adventure-fantasy is its gradual shift in tone. I went into this film without knowing what to expect. The action started off on the brighter side, with lots of humor supplied mainly by Lovett and Barnard, who forge an unlikely friendship. But as things progressed, a more ominous vibe crept in.

The performances are great, especially by Colman and Howard as two brothers with divergent perspectives on their unique circumstances. The supporting cast was also excellent, although I wish Mexican-born actress Margo would have been featured a little more. With her large, expressive eyes and radiant presence, she definitely stands out and tends to steal the few scenes that she graces.

Conflicting perspectives: (L–R) George Conway (John Howard), Maria (Margo), and Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), in “Lost Horizon.” (Columbia Pictures)
Conflicting perspectives: (L–R) George Conway (John Howard), Maria (Margo), and Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), in “Lost Horizon.” (Columbia Pictures)

Overall, Frank Capra did an incredible job directing this thought-provoking, highly entertaining adventure film. I can imagine it was great escapist fare for distressed folks during the Great Depression. In today’s similarly tumultuous climate, “Lost Horizon” is just as fun a cinematic romp as it was back in the days of yore.

“Lost Horizon” is available on Apple TV, Tubi, YouTube, and Vudu.
‘Lost Horizon’ Director: Frank Capra Starring: Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton Not Rated Running Time: 2 hours, 12 minutes Release Date: Sept. 1, 1937 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
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Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.