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During the 1935 violent uprising in the war-torn Chinese city of Baskul, British diplomat and idealistic writer Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) comes to the aid of a group of western refugees which includes his brother George (John Howard). Fleeing by passenger plane, they are unknowingly kidnapped and instead of being flown east to the safety of civilization, they are flown to the remote and treacherous Himalayas in Tibet where the plane crashes. Rescued by a timely exploration caravan led by the mysterious Chang (H.B.Warner), they are led back to a beautiful paradise known as Shangri-La. This lavish Utopian world has a strange revitalising effect on the visitors, but when it becomes evident that leaving this perfect paradise may be more difficult than first expected, questions about why they are there and who is keeping them against their will rise in their minds.

Review by Craig Miller:
There is a tendency to overly gush about films from Hollywood's golden age. The grand stories, the powerhouse performances from iconic actors, the simplistic filmmaking techniques, it's the desire to look back at these films with more a sense of biased wonderment than a critical eye. In regards to the 1937 Frank Capra classic Lost Horizon, it's quite easy to look back and do both.

Firstly, it's a film that works as a piece of perfect escapism, a worthy goal for any film industry professional and a delightful life-affirming adventure. Secondly, it's a departure film from the legendary US filmmaker, whose willingness to take a leap from his cutesy comedies (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It Happened One Night) and deliver an epic fantasy/adventure tale resulted in, artistically, some of his best work of the decade.

Based on a novel by James Hilton, Lost Horizon captures much about the ideals of Utopian living and societal harmony and says a lot about how we have developed into a culture of me, me, me. Way ahead of its time.

For the time, it was quite a communistic view, but Capra's views on Hilton's Lost Horizon ideology make for compelling vision on screen. With grand sets, lavish costume design and careful attention to the smallest detail in creating this Utopian world, Lost Horizon became the most expensive movie ever made by Columbia pictures, at the time destroying its estimated $1.2 million budget and almost exceeding $2.5 million - nearly as much as was spent on Columbia's other twenty plus pictures made the same year and a cost that severely troubled the studio financially.

The strongest scenes bookmark the film. The tense airport evacuation opening has our group of hesitant adventurers thrown into an uncomfortable reality which sets up the story and action for the rest of the film and, even though this is primarily exposition, it's pivotal to the crux of the story and extremely well shot. The final shots of a singular determined figure traipsing the treacherous mountains of Tibet on his way home end the film on such a momentous note you can't help but feel that you've taken a life-altering journey yourself. Well it is Capra after all!

The rest of the picture relies heavily on performances. Ronald Colman's turn as the idealistic Englishman Robert Conway, living that unfulfilling life of luxury yet emptiness, searching for meaning and finding it in the lost city of Shangri-La, is exactly the performance required and John Howard, who plays Conway's headstrong and pessimistic brother George, work well together as polar opposites, one ready to believe in anything, the other desperate to hold onto familiarity. H.B Warner also does some fine work as the mild-mannered, philosophising Chang and this Oscar nominated performance is central to the truth behind Shangri-La and its purpose - a man with all the answers who doesn't like questions.

It's certainly far from flawless. Capra does tend to ram home points about social structure, class, crime and the ideals of a perfect society in a way that makes you long for some real filmic conflict, which is all but non-existent, and the middle act is quite tedious apart from the enchanting love affair between Conway and local Shangri-La resident Sondra (played beautifully by Jane Wyatt). But in the grand scheme of things, they are minor irritations.

Lost Horizon really wears its heart on its sleeve - it's the search for a place to call home and for peace and understanding in life. Capra may have got three or four careers worth of credit during his lifetime in the film industry, but without the diversity of films like this, he may well have only got two!

For a film that's the best part of seventy years old, its transfer to DVD looks very good indeed. With a large portion of Capra's original cut having been abused over the years - the original has been continually edited down, scenes discarded and the film stock suffering terribly at the hands of dreaded nitrate decomposition - this DVD is as close to the original cinema release as is possible. Under the watchful eye of film restoration expert Robert Gitt and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the twenty-five-year process to get this film restored and re-mastered has reaped some wondrous benefits. The image looks remarkably clean and the jumpy vintage footage has been stabilised.

All but seven minutes of footage from the original film has been restored. But this arduous restoration process did uncover a gem: the original full-length soundtrack. Because of this seven minute discrepancy between sound and pictures, lost images have been replaced with a selection of surviving production photos and, while some may find it a distraction and purists may scoff, this improvisation at least makes practical use of the material available and tries to tell as much of the original story as possible. For that, it's gold.

The extras are mighty impressive. Once again, for a film of its age it's a shock to find any extras, let alone the bounty of original and newly produced material found here, a delightful surprise that puts many modern DVD film releases to shame.

The audio commentary with Robert Gitt and film critic Charles Champlin focuses as much on the film as it does on the tumultuous life of this Capra gem and these two experts really know both inside out. A photo documentary narrated by film historian Kendall Miller packs a punch with its use of rare and unseen production photographs and anecdotes about filming and the legendary filmmaker.

There's a short featurettes on opening title comparisons, which compare the film's original intro with that of its re-issue some years later, and a before and after comparison of the work that went into the restoration. Plus there's a collection of three deleted scenes, all beautiful, that never made it to screen. Much of the soundtrack here doesn't exist but Gitt comes to the rescue, doing a voice over (reading original lines from the script) that gives the scenes depth and context. Finally (if that wasn't enough already!) the inclusion of an alternate ending is another fabulous touch and, although it's brief with minor changes to the original ending, it does work as a cheerful alternative.

Published July 28, 2005

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(US, 1937)

CAST: Robert Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, John Howard, Thomas Mitchell, Isabel Jewell, Margo, Sam Jaffe

DIRECTOR: Frank Capra

SCRIPT: Robert Riskin

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes

PRESENTATION: Full Frame, mono

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by film critic Charles Champlin and film restoration expert Robert Gitt; Photo documentary narrated by film historian Kendall Miller, Before and After restoration featurette, Alternate ending, deleted scenes, opening title comparisons, trailer.


DVD RELEASE: July 13, 2005

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