I haven't yet seen the new film of Les MisÚrables but the hostile reception it has been receiving reminds me a lot of what happened to Lost Horizon (1973), another critically savaged musical based on a novel previously adapted in highly regarded non-musical versions. By my reckoning Lost Horizon was the penultimate classical Hollywood musical of its kind (with 1974's Mame being the last). Those kind of big-scale, roadshow releases, often in large negative formats like Todd-AO and Super Technirama and exhibited on a reserved-seats basis for long runs in big downtown movie palaces, seem to have begun with Oklahoma! (1955). The genre pretty much peaked with The Sound of Music (1965), the biggest hit of the entire 1960s and so successful that it saved 20th Century-Fox from the financial bath it took on Cleopatra (1963), but it was almost all downhill from there.
Changing tastes marked by the arrival of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation of filmmakers, combined with the supremely bad judgment of various Hollywood producers, gradually turned critical and public opinion against the genre. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Cabaret (1972) were pretty much the last major hits of their kind. Conversely, Darling Lili, Song of Norway (both 1970), The Great Waltz, 1776, and The Man of La Mancha (1972), all spectacularly flopped, and all except 1776 received terrible reviews.
Lost Horizon garnered some of the harshest criticism, and subsequently made Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss's (and Michael Medved's) infamous book The 50 Worst Films of All-Time, but like 95% of the "winners," that title is undeserved. Though overlong and a bit wobbly at times, with a creative tug-of-war going on between innovation and classicism, Lost Horizon is far better than its reputation would suggest, and overall it's quite good.
And Twilight Time's superb new Blu-ray affords viewers a chance to experience the film in the best possible light. The high-def transfer and the 5.1 audio are excellent. It's also the complete 150-minute cut of the film, Lost Horizon having been edited by about 10 minutes for its general release. And, unlike most Twilight Time Blu-rays, this one is packed with lots of worthwhile extra features. The movie is almost a revelation.
Lost Horizon has a terrific opening act. In Baskul, somewhere in the Far East, Westerners are being evacuated from the midst of a chaotic revolution. On one of the last planes out of the country are British diplomat Richard Conway (Peter Finch), his younger brother George (Michael York), engineer Sam Cornelius (George Kennedy), suicidal Newsweek photographer Sally Hughes (Sally Kellerman), and displaced stand-up comedian Harry Lovett (Bobby Van). Only hours into the flight do they realize that, instead of flying east toward Hong Kong, their small plane has been hijacked and heading in the opposite direction.
In an unexplored region of the Himalayas, the plane crashes and the pilot is killed, but the party is almost immediately rescued by a group of lamas led by Chang (John Gielgud). In blizzard-like conditions they escort the survivors through a through a tunnel leading to an unimaginable sub-tropical paradise, the completely isolated Shangri-La, an idyllic community with temperate climate and where its residents enjoy unusually long and carefree lives despite the lack of electricity, modern conveniences, and almost no contact with the outside world.
Although George is anxious to return to civilization as quickly as possible, for the rest Shangri-La offers these mostly unhappy, dissatisfied souls the opportunity to start a new life. Richard falls in love with Catherine (Liv Ullmann), a school teacher; Sam is initially excited to discover a vein of gold ripe for the picking, but then falls in love with Sally and begins to have second thoughts. George falls for the beautiful Maria (Olivia Hussey), but Chang and the High Lama (Charles Boyer) warn Richard that her youthful appearance is deceiving. Though she looks just 20 in fact she's more than one hundred years old.
Critics were ready to jump on Lost Horizon for various reasons, not the least of which was the fondness felt for Frank Capra's 1937 film version of James Hilton's 1933 novel. Another reason seems to have been a reaction the film's conflicting approach to its material, reducing and at times even completely thwarting its effectiveness. Its openly gay producer, Ross Hunter, favored glossy, frequently over-the-top melodramas and remakes of the Douglas Sirk/Imitation of Life variety, and pretty clearly had in mind a Hollywood musical of the Old School long after that horse had left the barn.
But Lost Horizon is essentially an existential story and, thus here, an existential musical not much in need of the high-kicking razzle-dazzle one usually associates with classical Hollywood musicals. The film was debatably timelier than even Capra's 1937 version insofar as its characters are implicitly disillusioned over the war in Vietnam, racial and religious strife, corrupt governing, a growing dependence on technology, etc. Being able to escape from all that in 1973 must have seemed particularly attractive.
Burt Bacharach and Hal David's original songs reflect this longing and the simple joys to be found in Shangri-La but their lyrics and orchestrations are both unusually introspective and modern at once, very unlike the Rodgers & Hammerstein show tunes old-fashioned audiences probably expected or wanted. I first saw the film on laserdisc about 20 years ago and felt then that Lost Horizon might have been salvaged had distributor Columbia simply cut all the songs out, that the non-musical sections would have played better without them.
However, watching the Blu-ray, and especially being able to see and hear the film under ideal conditions, my opinion changed completely and now I regard it as one of the great, unjustly maligned movie musical scores of its kind. As Vincent Canby noted in his review of the film, the score is too sophisticated for the movie it was designed to support. (Interestingly, other than over the opening titles there are no songs at all until about 40 minutes into the film, after everyone arrives in Shangri-La. Holding back as the filmmakers did was very clever and effective.)
Working against this innovation is a conflictingly old-fashioned approach to other aspects of the film and the influence of so many old-timers behind the camera, including costume designer Jean Louis, cinematographer Robert Surtees, and production designer E. Preston Ames, all of whom were pushing 70. While the superb character actor James Shigeta plays lama To Len, decidedly non-Asian John Gielgud is a bit awkward as Chang who, instead of appearing authentically Asian looks to have some sort of strange eyelid inflammation. The impressively massive exterior sets uncomfortably straddle stereotypical Asian exoticness mixed with storybook fantasy, and in fact the main set was a refurbished castle set originally built on the Warner Bros. backlot for Camelot. The interior sets are quite dated, looking more like what one might find at the Bangkok Hilton than in Hilton's Lost Horizon. In the accompanying booklet Hunter himself is quoted as essentially saying anything approaching realism was not his goal.
But it's still an impressive, handsome-looking production and the mostly non-musically-trained cast comes off well, particularly Sally Kellerman and, in a number choreographed by Hermes Pan, fellow MGM veteran Bobby Van. (Finch and Ullman are mostly dubbed by others.)
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, Lost Horizon looks great on Blu-ray, as the saying goes almost like a new movie. The image is notably sharp and bright with excellent color and contrast throughout, and the scenes cut for the general release version are imperceptibly reintegrated here. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also excellent, presumably adapted from its original six-track mag 70mm blow-up release. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Supplements are especially good this time. Included is Twilight's usual isolated score track; an alternate version of "I Come to You"; Burt Bacharach's song demos (which play as animated behind-the-scenes and publicity stills appear onscreen); several trailers and TV spots. Also included is a vintage documentary, Ross Hunter: On the Way to Shangri-La, with much behind-the-scenes footage; and the usual fine liner notes by Julie Kirgo.
Better than I expected when I saw it all those years ago on laserdisc, and almost a revelation on Blu-ray, Lost Horizon cries out for reappraisal. Though overlong by a good 25 minutes, it's a handsome production with an engrossing story and unexpectedly beguiling musical numbers. One of the year's best releases and a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.