The made-to-order DVD market may not be the most perfect way to enjoy movies, but on the plus side it's brought a ton of otherwise inaccessible stuff back into circulation. The m.o.d. market is the province of TV movies, cult classics, forgotten silents, star vehicles that never clicked for some reason, and the occasional Titanic-sized big budgeted disaster. Counting among the latter is producer Ross Hunter's glossy yet ill-conceived 1973 musical flop Lost Horizon, now available as a spiffy Sony Classics By Request title.
History-wise, Lost Horizon joins the unsavory likes of Lucille Ball's Mame and Peter Bogdonavich's At Long Last Love in shutting the coffin lid on Hollywood's Big Budget Musical phase in the 1960s and early '70s. This was the film that broke up the Burt Bacharach-Hal David songwriting partnership, the film that sent Ross Hunter's career into made-for-TV purgatory, the film whose glittering cast of non-singing actors prompted Bette Midler to quip "I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical."
Can it really be that horrible? After watching it on DVD, I can confidently say that it's a bloated, bizarre, miscast mess of a movie, but there are a lot of good things going for it as well. Like a lot of films with awful reputations, the end product is not nearly as terrible as one would think.
This Lost Horizon uses plots elements and characters from both James Hilton's utopian novel and Frank Capra's film version from 1937 (which was also something of an expensive gamble in its day). The story begins with a group of Westerners stranded in an Asian country while a revolution rages among its people. Diplomat Peter Finch arranges for a plane to transport them out of the war-torn region for himself and his brother (Michael York), a depressed photojournalist (Sally Kellerman), an engineer (George Kennedy), and a down-on-his luck comedian (Bobby Van). The group are happy to leave, but they soon find that the plane has been hijacked to head further East into rebel territory. The plane crashes in the snowy Himalayas, killing the pilot and leaving the passengers wondering about their fate. A traveling party led by Chang (John Gielgud) a wise old Asian man, finds the group and leads them to the bucolic land of Shangri-La, a temperate paradise shielded by mountains on all sides.
Shangri-La is a place where people never age, get sick, or become poor -- inner harmony so rules the residents that conflict and greed doesn't exist. Although the new visitors are anxious to get back West, the warm welcomes of Chang and Brother To-Lenn (James Shigeta) ensures that they won't be leaving any time soon. The characters react to Shangri-La in differing ways: Finch feels a strange, quasi-spiritual pull to this land and is taken by Liv Ullmann's blonde schoolmarm. Kellerman is despondent and suicidal, until Shigeta counsels her and she, too, becomes a Shangri-La devotee in seemingly record time. Kennedy at first devises a plan to cart out the gold in the valley's rivers, until the by now fancy-free Kellerman persuades him to stay and use his engineering abilities in a constructive way for the other Shangri-Laites. A bad song and dance man in the outside world, the energetic Van character finds a new purpose and kinship with the Shangri-La children. Only York's character seems immune to Shangri-La's charms. He schemes to find a way out of the country, despite falling for a woman named Maria (Olivia Hussey) who also yearns to see the outside world.
While Finch is falling head over heels for Ullman, he is alerted by Gieldgud that Shangri-La's High Lama (Charles Boyer) wants to see him. While speaking with the High Lama, Finch learns that the group ending up at Shangri-La is no accident. In fact, Boyer states that he wishes for Finch to take his place as the community leader when he dies. He also receives a warning that Shangri-La's magical age-defying properties could spell disaster if any longtime residents decide to leave. Finch tells York of this development, but he is determined to leave with the youthful Hussey anyhow. Will Finch join them, or live out his fate in Shangri-La?
Seeing this again makes me wonder what the source material's appeal held for Ross Hunter, whose filmography is made up of glitzy guilty pleasures like Imitation of Life (1959) and the original Airport (1969). The film's distinct pacifist message comes through loud and clear, although it also has the unintended effect of making Shangri-La look like a hippy-dippy commune. Despite Hunter's tendency towards the luxurious, the only truly impressive aspect is the gargantuan palace set - and even that gets tiresome after a while. The other notable visual touch is the totally '70s "peasant girl chic" wardrobe on the ladies, courtesy of costume designer Jean Louis.
Director Charles Jarrott handles the dialogue scenes in a workmanlike manner, with the actors duly handling the often heavy-handed dialogue (by writer and future gay rights activist Larry Kramer). It's in the musical numbers that the film goes weirdly awry, with actors' singing voices obviously dubbed in (only Van, Kellerman and Shigeta do their own singing) and dull, static staging and choreography from Hermes Pan. Burt Bacharach and Hal David were perhaps the wrong choice to write the songs, since their kind of sophisticated pop was already passé by '73. Surprisingly enough, their contributions resonate the most strongly. It's the transition from recording booth to celluloid where things go wrong. Something bouncy like "The World Is A Circle" may have sounded bright and appealing on vinyl, but on film the tune is joylessly lip-synched by Ullman and a bunch of klutzy kids tumbling down a grassy hillside. Big whoop.
Musically, the film reaches its nadir whenever Ullmann or Finch lip-synch (especially the duet in which their characters "think" a song to each other - ugh!), but it's also has some truly enjoyable moments. Bobby Van, the only cast member that brings some levity, has a field day with the otherwise cloying "Question Me An Answer." The sprightly "Things I Will Not Miss" is another Bacharach gem, performed by (dubbed) Olivia Hussey and a loosey-goosey Sally Kellerman. These numbers are strangely bunched into the middle of the film. The first third is basic setup (revolution, plane crash, entry into Shangri-La), while the finale becomes the domain of gruff Peter Finch and an embarrassingly scenery-chewing Michael York. It's a mess, all right.
This version of Lost Horizon restores it to its original 149 minute length, including a few musical numbers that Columbia Pictures removed from the film's first run (others were revived on the '90s laserdisc edition). They include "Fertility Dance" (a riot of gyrating men with red flags which premiere audiences supposedly laughed at ), "Living Together, Growing Together (reprise)", "If I Could Go Back" (an effective ballad), "When Knowledge Ends, Faith Begins", and "I Come To You". The songs themselves are pleasantly done, if dated sounding; I can see why the soundtrack album has its devotees.
The disc's Dolby Digital soundtrack sounded very clear for a 1970s vintage film. Dialogue and music are nicely balanced overall.
The 2.40:1 widescreen image generally looks fantastic, marred with only a bit of fuzziness. The newly restored scenes are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film.
Columbia has furnished this edition of Lost Horizon with several intriguing extras that go beyond what is usually available on m.o.d. offerings:
- First off, the disc has a delightful audio extra with several Burt Bacharach song demos (23:44). Sung in Bacharach's distinctive croak with simple piano accompaniment, these demos are a good way to hear Mr. B's solid melodies sans orchestral arrangements. The demos all come with animated slide shows of various behind-the-scenes shots on the film, which are terrific.
- Ross Hunter on the Way to Shangri-La' (10:03) is a vintage featurette with Hunter himself, resplendent in sunglasses and blue denim ensemble, proudly crowing on the magnificent achievement he just did on this production. The film isn't in the best shape, but it contains many fascinating shots in and around the Warner Bros. studio backlot (this was the first film Columbia shot there, under the guise of The Burbank Studios). The musical score on this film is an awesomely arranged instrumental take on "Things I Will Not Miss", by the way.
- Ross Hunter Promo (8:36) are outtakes of Hunter from the above featurette. The film is in widescreen and, although terribly faded, better preserved than the featurette footage.
- Rounding out the extras is an alternate version of the "I Come To You" number, a gooey duet with Finch and Ullmann. This sequence is sourced from a degraded print, and presented in letterboxed 4:3 format. Fascinatingly awful.
Lost Horizon is a good example of a terrible film given a great presentation on DVD. Although it will never be a masterpiece, the thoughtful extras and nicely done picture/soundtrack turn the film into a highly misunderstood, sometimes even enjoyable fiasco that is worth a second look. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.