The Paradise Paradox: Lost Horizon
Ain't it always the same? You finally find the one place on Earth where you really feel comfortable, where the people really seem to get you, and you finally have the opportunity to meet the girl of your dreams. Then, wouldn't you know it? You end up having to leave because of your pesky little brother.
Of course, there is a lot more to Frank Capra's 1937 epic Lost Horizon
than that. Yet the gist of the film's plot revolved around a sibling conflict between two characters played by actors Ronald Coleman and John Howard. Coleman played the older brother, Robert Conway, a man who was already famous the world over for his work as a British author and diplomat. Howard played the younger brother, George Conway, who was not so famous and who dwelt for the first part of the film within his brother's shadow. Granted, the two actors for all their talent did not seem all that convincing as siblings especially since Coleman made no effort to disguise his English accent and Howard sounded about as American as Clark Gable.
Perhaps this was intentional, and Capra meant to allude to the age-old relationship between Great Britain and America by casting an English actor to represent the older sibling and an American actor to represent the younger sibling. Perhaps the casting was just a cynical attempt to appeal to both the British and the American film markets. More likely, the casting director had other things on his mind apart from appeasing the tastes of nitpicking movie-goers like myself.
Anyway, as the film began, the brothers Conway were organizing the escape of the last few Western refugees from an Asian city about to be swept under by an oncoming revolution. Scenes of this escape seemed oddly reminiscent of accounts I have read about the Fall of Saigon
, especially when it came to the part when the Westerners deliberately tried to prevent the local Asians from trying to board the planes being used for the Westerners' getaways. (Of course, this movie predated the Fall of Saigon by at least three-and-a-half decades, but the parallels are still eerie.)
Being the noble person that Coleman normally played in movies like this, Robert Conway waited until the last plane out before choosing to escape the city. And even then his departure seemed to have more to do with his brother George's efforts -- and the responsibility he felt toward the last three Western refugees -- than his own free will. Once on board, Conway proved to be the only Westerner concerned enough to fret about the fate of the Asians who had been left behind to face the fury of the oncoming rebellion, all the other Westerners being content to congratulate themselves on being the last white people to escape. (Yes, they actually put it that way. But then this was the 1930s, when people were less diplomatic about saying things like that.)
Eventually the refugees found out that their pilot was not the British one they had been expecting but a pistol-toting Asian. Any attempt to retake the plane was immediately smashed by Robert Conway, who pointed out the futility of retaking the plane when the Asian hijacker was the only one on board who knew how to fly a plane.
Then the plane crash-landed and the refugees ended up being taken to a Tibetan lamasery
known to the locals as Shangri-La. There they were told about the difficulties of traveling to the outside world due to the surrounding mountains and the harsh climate and about how they would have to stay in Shangri-La for an indefinite period. Needless to say, the five refugees were not happy to hear this about this involuntary layover. However, Robert Conway was more philosophical about the situation than the rest.
Eventually all the refugees save George Conway learned to enjoy life in Shangri-La. Robert Conway himself proved to be the most well-adjusted of them all, not only meeting a kindred spirit in the lamasery's mysterious High Lama (played by Sam Jaffe) but falling in love with an equally enigmatic Western girl named Sondra (played by Jane Wyatt). Unfortunately, his younger sibling was not as content with his surroundings. Even after he fell for yet another mysterious Western woman (played by Mexican actress Margo), George Conway talked of nothing but leaving.
Eventually he not only got his wish but he also talked his older brother into leaving with him despite his brother's best judgment. His departure unfortunately proved to be a mistake when he found that the reason Robert had initially warned against the trip was true. He killed himself in despair and Robert Conway, alas, was left alone to tell the tale. And maybe, just maybe, attempt a return trip...
So what is there for modern audiences to learn from this film? On one hand, I have to salute the much-maligned American Film Institute for actually doing a decent job of restoring as much of the original film as possible. Even a brief nude scene that must have annoyed the heck out of the Hays Office
was restored (though it did not seem all that daring by 2008 standards). I must confess that I must found the performances of Ronald Coleman, Jane Wyatt, Thomas Mitchell and the always memorable Edward Everett Horton to be pretty interesting as well. John Howard I did not care for that much -- and not just because he played the obligatory fly in the Tibetan ointment -- and Margo's casting as a Russian
character I found to be more eccentric than anything else. (Nice to see that the old Hollywood tradition of the interchangeable ethnic actor still existed back then. Well, I suppose that is why they call it acting -- among other things.)
Yet the philosophy of the film seemed more than a bit over-idealistic, even by Frank Capra standards. I can readily understand the appeal of the film to a country that was then in the midst of the Great Depression and on the brink of World War II. Indeed, I can understand the appeal the film might have to even today's jaded movie-goers. And yet just as some film critics take Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
to task for over-romanticizing the small-town lifestyle of Depression-era America (noting that it couldn't have been that wonderful if so many rural folks abandoned it to go to the big city), I can't help wanting to take this film to task for over-romanticizing the rural lifestyle of 1930s Asia. I especially can't help wondering how accepting of Shangri-La the Western refugees would have been had they been expected to do any of the menial tasks routinely expected of the local Asians. After all, it is easy to pretend you've living in Paradise if you are being waited on hand and foot, but when you are the one who has to scrub the floors and tend the sheep and cook the food and make the beds, then life does not seem all that idyllic.
Nor can I avoid seeing the irony of how many of the refugees wanted to show their appreciation to the hosts of their new-found home by immediately trying to change it. The Horton character wanted to educate the local children in a Western science, the Mitchell character wanted to install a modern system of running water. Even Sondra, who grew up in Shangri-La, chose to instruct the local children in Western ways. In short, the reaction of the Westerners to Shangri-La appeared to be: this place is just perfect... now let's change it.
Then again change is a part of life, and it could be argued that without such change, few of us would ever be truly happy. Perhaps the efforts the Westerners made to change their surroundings were the only way they could have ever been truly content -- which makes me wonder whether the true inspiration for this movie came not so much from the James Hilton novel of the same name
as it did from that most legendary of hard-to-please characters, Faust
Labels: Asia, Edward Everett Horton, Frank Capra, Horizontes Perdidos, Jane Wyatt, Margo, Películas Clásicas I, Ronald Coleman, Thomas Mitchell