Monday, November 11, 2013

Movie Monday: Lost Horizon

All Singing! All Dancing! All Eastern Mysticism! It's Lost Horizon!
James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon is one of my all-time favorite books, and the 1937 Frank Capra film adaptation is, IMO, an underrated mini-classic. So of course I was interested in other film versions of the story, of which there is only one other: the 1973 musical! Musical? Yes, Musical!
Produced by Big Time ShowBiz Mogul Ross Hunter, the 1973 Lost Horizon musical was, and is, one of Hollywood's most notorious bombs. Clocking in at about 2 1/2 hours, the film--featuring a score by legendary composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David--was essentially laughed off the screen almost from the get-go, and was buried in a shallow grave by Columbia, not to be seen again until 2011, when it was finally released on DVD. But is it really all that bad?

The film opens in an unknown country, where a bunch of Americans (played by Peter Finch, Michael York, George Kennedy, Sally Kellerman, and Bobby Van) are in the middle of some sort of violent revolution. People are rioting, fires are burning, things are blowing up:
Finch, who plays a foreign diplomat Richard Conway, bangs on the door to the cockpit and yells at the pilot to take off, now. We see a hand pop into the frame, lock the door from the inside, and the plane takes off. In the chaos, no one realizes they haven't actually seen the pilot. But the plane is taking off, so who cares?

While the plane is in the air, we are briefly introduced to the characters: Conway the diplomat, his brother George (York), a reporter (Kellerman), an architect on the run from the law (Kennedy), and nightclub comedian Harry Lovett (Van). After everyone gets some sleep, Lovett realizes the sun is rising on the wrong side of the plane: they're going the wrong way!

Yes, the plane is headed further East, eventually crashing in the Himalayas. They are met by some sherpas, and guided to a mysterious valley that seems like a mirage:
They are introduced to a man known as Chang (John Gielgud, because, you know, English=Asian), who explains that this place is the land known as Shangri-La, thought to be a myth by the outside world. Because of Shangri-La's location (surrounded on all sides by mountains), the valley is a virtual paradise, yet completely hidden from view.

Shangri-La seems idyllic; the people there are gentle and welcoming, and soon Finch's Conway meets a schoolteacher (Liv Ullmann), who he takes liking too. Pretty much everyone except York's character seems to like this place. far, so good. The story is fairly well told; if a little on the bland side. But it's around this point that things take a turn for the weird:
We meet a beautiful young woman known as Maria (Olivia Hussey), and during a dinner scene, she starts breaking into song! What the what?

Yes, it's about the 40 minute mark that the songs start. And while I can't fault the film's structure--waiting to get to Shangri-La before the musical numbers begin--IMO the minute people start singing it just completely derails the tension the film has been trying so hard to build. It's not that I have a problem with musicals per se (White Christmas is on my Top 10 Favorite Films of all time list), but trying to fit musical numbers into this story feels so odd, so misplaced, that Lost Horizon never recovers.

Conway meets the High Lama of Shangri-La (the legendary Charles Boyer), a man who seems to be many hundreds of years old. He explains to Conway that it wasn't an accident that he and his friends were brought here; the plan was all along that he be brought here, with the intention that he, Richard Conway, will eventually become the High Lama.
York's character is the only real malcontent; he falls in love with Maria and together the plot to leave Shangri-La. They try and talk the others into joining them, but everyone is too busy singing and dancing their cares away to even consider leaving:
Conway The Younger plants enough doubt in his older sibling about the veracity of Chang and The High Lama's stories about Shangri-La that they decide to leave, with Maria in tow. Chang warns that Maria is almost a hundred years old, and will begin to age again if she leaves; but they don't listen and head out into the snowy wastes of the Himalayas.

The sherpas grow tired of being slowed down by the Conways, and leave them behind. They take refuge in a cave, and the truth about Maria is evident:
York becomes so upset he runs out into the snow, falling off a ledge in a scene so abrupt and awkwardly staged it becomes inadvertent comedy. Conway--the still breathing one--keeps going, and is eventually found by members of the outside world. He wakes up in a hospital, and the doctors questions him about his half-unconscious mutterings about a lost world.

Conway realizes that he wants to go back, and sneaks out of his room before some governmental colleagues arrive. When last we see him, Conway is looking for Shangri-La, and it appears he has found it:
...The End!

Considering its reputation as one of the biggest turkeys ever made, I was expecting a truly jaw-dropping example of cinematic wrongheadedness. And don't get me wrong; trying to make this material a musical was very, very wrongheaded. Maybe--maybe--if the music had been of a more modern variety, it might have worked. After all, the concept of people wanting to escape the modern world during the depths of the 1960s (riots, assassinations, Vietnam) is a perfectly workable one, and Hilton's original story could have easily been updated to address modern concerns.

But the songs by Hal David and Burt Bacharach are so old school, so Hollywood schmaltzy, making them so jarring I half expected the film strip to fall off the camera sprockets ala Gremlins 2. The actors are in there pitching (Kellerman, who started her career as a singer, seems the most comfortable), but it just plain doesn't work. I've read a number of articles by people who are fans of Bacharach's music who say that if you listen to the songs on their own, they're actually pretty good (one, "The World is A Circle", has been covered enough that is approaches being a Standard), but as they are presented here, it just seems so very, very odd.

I truly believe the people who made this movie (the aforementioned Ross Hunter, director Charles Jarrott) had all the best intentions in the world, thinking this story could be retold. Lord knows the cast is distinguished, and the costumes and sets are reasonably good (tho the Shangri-La seen in Capra's 1937 version is far more visually striking than the one seen here). But, sometimes, you can have all the right ingredients in the cake, but the damn thing just won't rise. At 2 1/2 hours, the film was shooting for being an Epic, and when epics don't work, they don't work on a giant scale.

There's a precedent for movies that were planned as musicals, only to have all the musical numbers removed when it became "clear" that the film didn't work as planned. I wonder what a version of Lost Horizon with all the songs removed would feel like; whether it would be a tight, if a little bloodless, adventure story, or an even more incoherent mess.

Eventually enough time will pass where the memory of this version will have faded entirely (as if it hasn't already), and maybe Lost Horizon will get another workout. It's a gut-level, compelling story, and if Hollywood ever decides to try again they've got my money!

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