Despite the commercial failure of its 1937 adaptation, which was directed by Frank Capra, Columbia Pictures took another shot at bringing James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon to the screen. The bloated 1973 version, featuring twee songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, fared just as poorly at the box office as its predecessor. Key among the 1973 movie’s problems is the way the songs clash with everything else onscreen. For instance, the first properly sung-through number doesn’t appear until nearly an hour has elapsed, which has the effect of suddenly changing the picture from a straightforward drama to a ridiculous musical spectacle. The remaining 90 minutes of Lost Horizon boast such attributes as an inherently compelling storyline and some vivid performances, but it’s impossible to take the movie seriously.
Lost Horizon begins with diplomat Richard Conway (Peter Finch) fleeing a war-torn country in the Far East, accompanied by several other refugees. The group’s getaway plane is hijacked by a mysterious stranger, who crashes the vessel in the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Soon afterward, Richard’s party is rescued by the enigmatic Chang (John Gielgud), and then escorted to the glorious realm of Shangri-La. Despite its storm-tossed surroundings, Shangri-La is a tropical utopia where people live in seemingly perfect harmony. Friction divides Richard’s party. Some, including Richard’s swaggering brother, George (Michael York), want to leave Shangri-La in order to resume their old lives. Others, including troubled reporter Sally (Sally Kellerman), embrace the chance to start anew. Meanwhile, Richard is introduced to Shangri-La’s spiritual leader, The High Lama (Charles Boyer), who explains that Richard has the opportunity to fulfill a special role in Shangri-La.
Narratively and thematically, this is fascinating stuff, even though pundits have spent years parsing political (and even racist) messages from the source material. Ironically, the strength of the storyline is what makes the intrusion of songs so absurd. Had the songs added anything, the result would have been different. Alas, the tunes merely express infantile notions, as when Kellerman and costar Olivia Hussey warble the line “different people look at things from different points of view” during the spirited duet “The Things I Will Not Miss.” As for the movie’s performances, they’re all over the place, an issue compounded by the use of professional singers to lip-sync vocals for many of the actors. Finch is expressive and regal; leading lady Liv Ullmann is luminous, within the constraints of an underwritten role; York is impassioned; and dignified costar James Shigeta is as welcome a presence as ever. Boyer and Gielgud acquit themselves well despite outrageous miscasting. Hussey, Kellerman, and costar George Kennedy, however, play their roles so melodramatically that the actors come across as cartoonish.
On a technical level, director Charles Jarriot and cinematographer Robert Surtees shoot the movie quite well, providing scope and splendor even if their presentation of singing-and-dancing nonsense feels indifferent. In the end, Lost Horizon is a bizarre mess, though patient viewers can conceivably power through the musical sequences and latch onto the dramatic scenes, which are vastly superior. FYI, the screenplay for Los Horizon is a minor credit for the important writer Larry Kramer, whose activism and creativity coalesced in his iconic play The Normal Heart (1985), which was endured through celebrated revivals and an Emmy-winning 2014 television adaptation.
Lost Horizon: FUNKY