"Have you ever dreamed of a place where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?': Thus reads the opening title card to Lost Horizon, Frank Capra's dream of Shangri-La, the inaccessible Himalayan Utopia to which British diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is hijacked, from which he escapes, and finally to which he attempts desperately to return.
It is not, unfortunately, one of Capra's more successful dreams. Lost Horizon is an exception among Capra's works, not only because it is one of the two major films of this most American of directors in which he abandons an American setting (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1933, is the other), but more precisely because Capra's vision of life is inextricably rooted in struggle. The first three parts of his four-part autobiography, for instance, are entitled "Struggle for Success," "Struggle with Success," and "The Great Struggle." The point at which struggle is suspended in favor of "lasting delight" is the point at which Capra reaches the limits of his imagination.
Accordingly, the best sequences in Lost Horizon are those that take place far from Shangri-La itself. Among these are the scenes that open the movie: the wartime burning of a Chinese city, from which a few huddled Europeans, shepherded by Conway, Britain's foreign secretary-designate, attempt to escape. He himself accompanies the last planeload of passengers, who barely elude the hysterical mob only to find themselves hijacked to some unknown mountainous destination beyond Tibet. After the plane crashes, a search party materializes to lead the bewildered passengers over seemingly impassable mountains to the Valley of the Blue Moon, Shangri-La. There, they discover an equable climate, a peaceable native people, a magnificent palace containing all the world's art and writings, and a two-hundred-year-old Belgian monk (Sam Jaffe) who rules as High Lama of Shangri-La. Aging is retarded in the Valley, and time itself is slowed.
The sets for Lost Horizon were so elaborate by the standards of the day that the film cost two million dollars, four times the cost of any other Columbia production to that time, and half of Columbia's total production budget for the year. Lost Horizon was, among other things, Harry Cohn's announcement to Louis B. Mayer and others that Columbia was no longer a little studio on "poverty row."
Freed from the burdens of work and time, the motley crew of Europeans with whom Conway escapes attains new levels of fulfillment. The consumptive prostitute Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell) takes a cure and becomes a nice girl; the crooked banker on the lam, Henry Bernard (Thomas Mitchell), initiates a public works program; the fussy paleontologist Alexander R Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) teaches the valley children; Conway and his younger brother George (John Howard) each find a young European woman on the premises and fall in love. And, in time, Robert Conway discovers why they have been hijacked to the mysterious valley: the Lama is at long last dying, and he has chosen Conway as his successor.
Upon the Lama's death, Conway is prepared to occupy the Lamasary, until his brother's girl friend, Maria (Margo), convinces them that the place is a fraud. The three flee through the mountains, where it turns out that it is she who is the fraud. On their first day out, she ages by half a century—the length of time she has been living in the valley—and dies. The crazed younger Conway hurls himself from a ledge; the elder Conway is swept away in a blizzard, from which he is rescued and returned to civilization. But civilization no longer commands his allegiance. As the film concludes, he is struggling against all odds to return through the mountains to the lost valley; and in the final shot, he reaches the elusive entrance.
Capra's Utopia is barely a Utopia at all. It is more accurate to call it a sanctuary, a negation of the world without, rather than an articulated world unto itself. It operates on an unexamined racial caste system; its system of government is benevolent despotism. The secret of its social organization, the enfeebled Lama tells the supplicant Conway, is that "We have one simple rule here: be kind." Shangri-La is neither a world unto itself nor a part of the larger world; it is, as the Lama sees it, a museum, a collection of the world's wisdom of which men can avail themselves as they emerge from the rubble of the war the Lama is certain will come.
However, sanctuary, not Utopia, is Capra's stock-in-trade (his next picture You Can't Take It with You, 1938, turns the Vanderhof house into a refuge from the world), and throughout his films of the 1930's, that sanctuary most often takes the form of romance. It is as much Sondra, the beautiful European schoolteacher, played by a very young Jane Wyatt in her first screen role, as it is Shangri-La to which Conway is trying to return. In the whole valley, it is only Sondra who embodies something more than negation; indeed, Shangri-La can be taken simply as a metaphor for romance. In the mid-1930's, romance is still sufficient to rouse the Capra hero from his characteristic despair, but in later Capra films, love and family are not enough to deter the heroes—John Doe and George Bailey—from attempted suicide. For that is precisely what Shangri-La is—a refuge from suicide. As the Lama's assistant Chang (H. B. Warner) explains the mysteries of the valley to the newly arrived Europeans, he alludes to worldly death as "indirect suicide"; he attributes the characteristic longevity-of the valley dwellers to "the absence of struggle." It is the sudden reimmersion into the world of time and struggle that immediately provokes the suicide of Conway's brother.
Capra's is the single most suicide-ridden world of any major American artist. His characters inhabit a fiercely atomistic society where no personal or social ties can ultimately bind them to life. This atomism is the basis of Capra's cutting and composition; it explains his preference for the individual set piece over the group shot (for example, Edward Everett Horton, in one of Lost Horizon's all-too-few moments of comic relief, scaring himself silly in a mirror). Capra is a master at the use of the individual reaction shot to help validate a fantastic scene. As Chang tells the Europeans of the wonders of the valley, Capra repeatedly cuts to their expressions of amazement. Their disbelief preempts that of the audience, so that their ultimate acceptance of Chang's tale makes it easier for the audience to suspend its disbelief.
In the final analysis, Shangri-La is an extremely egoistic response to the world. The Lama, after all, is asking a very capable man of the world to withdraw his considerable talents from it, to cultivate his own garden with his beautiful wife until, in time, the world must turn to him. Indeed, the very notion of Shangri-La is rooted in a despair that outweighs any countervailing optimism the valley is intended to inspire. Howard Hawks and John Ford could create groups and societies within the world where friendship and loyalty and justice prevailed; theirs are worlds of middle-distance and long shots. In the one-shot world of Frank Capra, community is an unworldly commodity, and Shangri-La an unworldly repository, not of community, but simply of refuge.