Editor’s Note: Welcome to Film Obsessive’s newest feature series, “Off the Shelf.” Each Saturday our writers share the joys of physical media, from reviews of new 4K and Blu-ray releases to reflections on the treasured media they’ve come to collect and cherish over the years.
Lost Horizon. directed by noted director and writer Frank Capra, was released in 1937 and is based on the bestselling novel by James Hilton. It stars Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. In 2016 the picture was chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
The film was a passion project of Frank Capra who fell in love with the novel while shooting It Happened One Night, the film was famous at the time for having one of the largest budgets of all time with $1.25 million. Due to various production issues, the budget ran over by $776,000 and after a disastrous test screening that saw audiences reportedly walking out (due to the film being shown after a slapstick comedy) extensive reshoots and reediting was ordered.
Despite all this the film was not met with positive reviews and was a box office disappointment, it took five years to recoup its budget, and almost destroyed the relationship between Frank Capra and Columbia. Time has been kind to the film though, as it is now viewed as a classic, and holds a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes from Critics and an 82% positive audience score.
The story follows Robert Conway, a British diplomat, fleeing China with a planeful of refugees. Unbeknownst to them the plane is hijacked and crash-lands deep in the Himalayas. They are rescued and taken to Shangri-La, a mountain paradise, ruled by the High Lama who hides a great secret.
Lost Horizon is a gorgeous motion picture, filled with lush imagery and engaging philosophy. It is very much a “Chosen One” story as we find out that Conway has been selected to become the next High Lama and safeguard Shangri-La and its secret of extended life. Conway as a character is likable and goes on a form of the hero’s journey throughout the film; however, in a very interesting turn, the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not he makes it back to Shangri-La to claim the mantel of the High Lama after he leaves in a moment of weakness.
Lost Horizon is a fascinating film because of how contemporary it feels. It’s filled with ideas about how uncertain the world is and how we all seek peace and meaning. It’s filled with many great quotes and monologues about peace, tranquility, and the passion of man.
Joseph Walker served as cinematographer (as he did on many Frank Capra films) and he does a great job bringing the world to life and showcasing the titanic nature of Shangri-La as well as the mountains surrounding it. Lastly, Ronald Colman who plays the lead turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as the world-weary Conway, who is tired of the world and seeking more. It’s a shame that Ronald Colman is mostly forgotten today as he was one of the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age leading men.
Special Features and Quality
This special 80th-anniversary edition of Lost Horizon comes in Blu-ray form inside a digibook that includes some very beautiful black and white photos from the film! It also includes a behind-the-scenes essay on the making of the film, and a breakdown of the restoration.
The film itself is presented in 1080p and 4K restoration and runs 132 minutes long.
The restoration of the film stitches together various versions of the film, as it has weirdly had many many edited versions over the years. Thus sometimes the quality of the film is amazingly clear and sharp and other times it is not as good; however, this is to be expected, from stitching together so many versions to craft what is now the definitive version of Lost Horizon, and as close to the original vision of Frank Capra as we will get.
The audio commentary is hosted by film critic Charles Champlin and film preservationist Robert Gitt, who discuss the various editions of the film and what was added and removed over the years. While this may be uninteresting to some, if one wishes to learn about the film’s very checkered history when it comes to political edits and WWII, this audio track will be very interesting.
The photo-documentary which runs 30 minutes gives a full breakdown of the production of the movie, it goes into everything from Capra’s struggles to get the film produced to how the special effects were created. It’s a fascinating look behind the curtain!
Lastly, we get to see the film’s original ending, which leaves the story somewhat ambiguous, versus the romantic and happy ending the studio mandated. It’s fun to see them side by side and compared!
Overall I was very pleased with this Blu-ray, I loved this film as a kid and the novel as an adult and this is the best version of it to date!
Shangri-La may not exist, but the ideals of peace, freedom, equality, and kindness are something we all seek and wish to see more of in this world. It’s because of this that Lost Horizon will always be a story that resonates with audiences, and one that we can watch when we like Conway become disillusioned with the world around us. I shall end this review with the words of Lord Gainsford:
Gentlemen, I give you a toast. Here’s my hope that Robert Conway will find his Shangri-La. Here’s my hope that we all find our Shangri-La.