Movie Recap: Lost Horizon (1973)

This week we lost Larry Kramer. The founder of ACT UP dedicated his life to activism but was also a talented author. His screenplay for Women in Love and his script for The Normal Heart were justly celebrated. Less known is his screenplay for the 1973 movie musical Lost Horizon. James Hilton’s 1933 novel had already flopped on film and on Broadway. It’s unclear why Columbia Pictures decided to produce a remake. It would soon be dubbed one of the “Worst Films of All Time.”  As a connoisseur of flop musicals, I decided to give it a look.

Lost Horizon follows a group of travelers who are stranded in the Himalayas. They are brought to Shangri-La, a secluded lamasery where all is not as it seems. The natives provide them food, shelter and clothing and beg them to stay. Should they? The story maintains suspense as it walks a line between fantasy and horror. Kramer does little to frame the racism and misogyny of the work through a 70’s lens. Instead he recycles beats and dialogue from Frank Capra’s 1937 film. And clears space for terrible musical numbers.

Want to learn more? Then get lost in my spoiler filled recap.

Act One: A Hijacking

Our heroes enter Shangri-La. (L to R, George Kennedy, Sally Kellerman, Bobby Van and Michael York.)

I never miss a Liv Ullman musical.

Bette Midler

Scene One: Airplane
VOICEOVER: (Sings) THERE’S A LOST HORIZON. YOU WON’T GET ANOTHER SONG TILL 40 MINUTES IN.
CONWAY (Peter Finch): I’m with the U.N. We’ve escaped the rebel soldiers in Baskul and are flying to Hong Kong. Would everyone like to establish their personality traits?
LITTLE BROTHER (Michael York): I’m boisterous.
REPORTER (Sally Kellerman): I’m bitter.
BUSINESS MAN (George Kennedy): I’m shifty.
COMEDIAN (Bobby Van): I’m obnoxious. Why’s the plane flying West?
(Evil Asian Pilot points a gun at them.)
EVIL ASIAN PILOT: [I don’t get any lines. Just a big mustache. The film is other-ing me.]
(The plane crashes. The Evil Asian Pilot dies on impact.)

Scene Two: Himalayan Mountains
JOHN GIELGUD: Welcome travelers.
CONWAY: It’s good to see another Brit. But why are you wearing that strange makeup?
JOHN GIELGUD: Call me Chang.
CONWAY: Oh dear.
JOHN GIELGUD: I’ll take you to our lamasery. A magic place where the weather’s always sunny and people never grow old. We call it Brigadoon Shangri-La.
REPORTER: I can’t live without cocaine! (Tries to jump off a mountain.)

Act Two: Paradise?

The Fertility Festival

Scene Three: Shangri-La
JOHN GIELGUD: We’re 500 miles from civilization. Why don’t you stay in El Dorado Shangri-La?
OLIVIA HUSSEY (Sings): WE LOVE SHANGRI-LA! YOU’LL NEVER WANT TO LEAVE! 
LITTLE BROTHER: Thanks. I hate it.
CONWAY: I think I’m gonna like it here. Did you kidnap us?
JOHN GIELGUD: Who meee???

Scene Four: Outdoor School
LIV ULLMANN and KIDS (Sing): GETTING TO KNOW YOU. GETTING TO KNOW ALL ABOUT YOU.
JOHN GIELGUD: Here women belong to any man who claims them.
CONWAY: Let’s… not unpack that. Miss? Are you Tibetan? 
LIV ULLMANN: Norwegian. And I loved you at first sight.
CONWAY: Are you secretly the mastermind who brought us here?
LIV ULLMANN: No. I was in the 1937 film. Here I don’t get much to do.
(The villagers perform a fertility dance.)
VILLAGERS (Sings): MAN AND WOMAN MAKE BABY!  
LITTLE BROTHER: They’re totally going to murder us.

Scene Five: Subplots
OLIVIA HUSSEY (Sings): I WANT TO GO TO NEW YORK WITH MICHAEL YORK!
REPORTER (Sings): I WANT TO STAY HERE! I DON’T NEED DRUGS ANYMORE.
COMEDIAN (Sings): I’M TEACHING THE KIDS TO TAP DANCE!
BUSINESS MAN: I’m building an irrigation system. And that’s quite enough singing, thank you.  
JOHN GIELGUD: Mr. Conway, the High Lama wants to speak to you.

Act Three: What is Truth?

Conway (Peter Finch) meets Emperor Palpatine the High Lama (Charles Boyer).

Scene Six: The High Lama
CONWAY: Charles Boyer? Why did a French man build a lamasery?  
HIGH LAMA: To protect European culture from world war. I’ve brought you here to replace me as ruler of Rapture Shangri-La!
CONWAY: Shouldn’t a Tibetan be running this place?
HIGH LAMA: I don’t see color. (Dies.)

Scene Seven: Escape
LITTLE BROTHER: We’re prisoners here. Olivia Hussey and I are getting out!
CONWAY: But she’s 100 years old. She can’t survive outside the village.  
OLIVIA HUSSEY: They’ve been lying to you, sonny. I’m a spry 20, dagnabbit!
CONWAY: Our sketchy kidnappers lied to me? I’ll come with you.
(They leave Shangri-La. Olivia Hussey ages 80 years and dies. Little Brother panics and falls off a mountain.)
CONWAY: Doh! Guess I’m going back to Shangri-La. (He does.)
VOICEOVER (Sings): THERE’S A LOST HORIZON WAITING TO BE FOUND!

THE END

Lost Investment

Olivia Hussey transforms.

The only thing I’m ashamed of is that my name is on Lost Horizon. But it paid me so much money that it enabled me to write plays. So you make a pact with the devil!

Larry Kramer

Critics enjoyed skewering the film for its many flaws. The artists washed their hands of it, citing executive meddling. But underneath the racist casting, clumsy dances and awful songs, what does this story tell us? That utopia is in the eye of the beholder? That human suffering is unavoidable? That you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth? Never lie about your age? The soundtrack gives Conway a closing ballad insisting that all he needs is love. But the song was cut for time and was not missed.

I’d hoped to learn something from watching Lost Horizon. Something about Kramer, or Hollywood, or myself. Instead I’m left with a few chuckles and a desire to rewatch Kramer’s Oscar nominated Women in Love.

John Gielgud and Peter Finch pretend they’re having a good time.

Have you seen either of the Lost Horizon films? Does Shangri-La fit your definition of Utopia? What are your favorite flop musicals?