Lost Horizon ★★★

It is a shame that Frank Capra’s stock seems to be in decline. The term Capra-corn is dismissive – it points to schmaltz and sentimentality. He certainly could be guilty of this, particularly in some of his later work. But at his best Capra is as good as anyone has been. There is It’s a Wonderful Life: a celebration of community as film noir; never has so much despair lay beneath the surface of a happy ending. Here is the American Dream portrayed as only tiny step away from suicide – the knife edge of success. And there is the deservedly successful It Happened One Night, a screwball comedy that sits with the best of Hawks and Sturges. His films are superbly crafted, exciting often quietly innovative and little daring. Many of his films remain deeply interesting: Platinum Blonde, Miracle Woman, the very funny The Strong Man - to name a few more gems. In my eyes, he remains one of the great directors of the Classic Hollywood studio era.

Lost Horizon though does point to some of the reasons for his diminished reputation to the modern eye. But let’s begin with the positive. It starts at a breakneck pace. Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), his brother George (John Howard) and a group of disgruntled Westerners escape an uprising in China. But their plane is hijacked and they crash land in the Himalayas. They are taken captive in the mysterious Shangri-La, a sort of Atlantis in the mountains. It is a exciting start. The set pieces are crisp with impact. The film cost a fortune to make – but the money was evidently well spent. It is a gripping adventure.

Shangri-La is a utopia. Led by the wise and aged High Lama (Sam Jaffe) everyone is happy. And slowly but surely the Westerners discard their greed and insecurities to embrace the mountain paradise. Illness fades away and troubles become abandoned, cleansed by the mountain air. And Capra stamps his philosophy on the film. Would it not be preferable if all the Great Men came together to create the perfect state? The World could be Shangri-La if it was founded on less competition and more co-operation. Of course, the great men of the world were about to do the opposite and plunge the world into six years of terror and despair. So in 1937, this was a perfectly valid question to pose.

But still there are significant problems with this passage of the film. I was not on the side of Robert. I was with George, the doubting brother. This Shangri-La utopia is dull, and more disturbingly conformist. There are rules laid down. They have to be followed. And there are consequences if you try to break out. Indeed there appears no real way to escape. The film's premise has far more in common with Triumph of the Will than Capra would probably have appreciated. After all Hitler was building his own utopian vision. It's just most of the world did not agree. I don’t want the supposed Great Men telling me what to do; laying out my boundaries, dishing out what is good for me. Give me the world in all its random mix of pain and beauty. Shangri-La is not far off benign fascism. I think this is what appeals most to Robert – the chance to rule, to carve out a bit of the world he can control. And a man of his talents should not want to hide away in the mountains, but instead be out there using his brains midst the chaos of the real world outside. George is the real hero, as he sees Shangri-La for what it really is – a con trick played on the masses by the Mighty. And I'm sure Capra had not intended the film to be read this way.

It is this occasional tendency for political simplicity that dogs some of Capra’s work. And with the rise of world weary cynicism, particularly since the 70’s, this aspect of his work is immature. The world's problems cannot be solved by a filibuster, or by starting again in the mountains. It is not the optimism and sentimentality that annoys, but the simplicity of the solutions on offer. Still Lost Horizon is an engaging and thought provoking work. It is far from the best of Capra. But when it puts aside the political spin and lectures, it remains an exciting and beautifully crafted film.

Watched as part of the 2015-16 Letterboxd Season Challenge.