Reviled in its day of infamy, forgotten over time, now ripe for re-dismissal, producer Ross Hunter’s purplish musical 1973 remake of Lost Horizon was the sort of stupid only money could buy. Lifting the formulaic template he applied with great financial and paltry critical success to his blockbuster adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s Airport, Hunter blew out the dimensions of Frank Capra’s 1937 telling of the seductive lure of Shangri-La, a wonderland where stars covering every possible demographic appeal gather, sing, collect vast quantities of knowledge, and use none of it. Revisionists have suggested the movie was a victim of circumstance as one of the last eight-figure musicals to limp into theaters long after The Sound of Music’s party was over. But aside from typically exertive work from baroque-pop songwriter Burt Bacharach, it’s a very different beast from some of the other notable well-mounted white elephants from the waning end of the trend, like Hello, Dolly! and Darling Lili. Those movies added insult to injury by confronting audiences who had lost their taste for Broadway showmanship with a horrific sort of enthusiasm for their bright, cheerful craft. The reason Bob Fosse’s moth-ridden, grease paint-smeared Cabaret alone succeeded was in part because it keyed into the new audience’s need to see those passé tropes upended and perverted. The essential incompetence of Lost Horizon (which notably cast Cabaret’s chic androgyne leading man Michael York in a key role) was of such a rarified variant that it couldn’t even accidentally harness some of that anti-musical hostility into some backlash, back-door profit. Its failure very well may have helped repair the generation gap.
Peter Finch stars as Richard Conway, a United Nations diplomat who at the film’s open has clearly screwed the pooch somewhere in the vicinity of whatever neighboring nation allowed the filmmakers to not have to say “Vietnam.” While throngs of angry villagers storm the airfield, Conway hustles any white person in sight onto every available prop plane. He manages to escape on the last flight along with his brother, George (on loan from Liberace, no doubt), and three others as diverse as you please, so long as blond, brunette, and silver are your measures of diversity. There’s Sam (George Kennedy, aching for a soggy cigar), an engineer who has selfishly lost his passion for hard labor; Harry (Bobby Van), a USO song-and-dance man whose laughter tap dances around his stale jokes; and Sally (Kellerman), a journalist on the verge of a Pulitzer-worthy nervous breakdown.
All are dismayed to find their ride has been shanghaied en route to Shanghai, and even more troubled when the plane crash-lands somewhere in the Himalayas. A few Saltine crackers later and a rescue party has suspiciously materialized to escort them to Shangri-La, where the mountain decks somehow manage to keep blizzard conditions at bay and evidently keep the oxygen inside some serious chronic shit. Everyone there is at peace with each other and life expectancy is measured in centuries, not decades. Inanity is espoused in song, and fertility is institutionalized publicly through the ribbon routines of underdeveloped chorus boys in loincloths. Everyone wants to go to there permanently, aside from George, who justifiably questions Shangri-La’s true viability as an oasis to anyone but racist Unitarians. Richard, however, comes to find that he’s being vetted to replace the High Lama and, as a side project, try to breathe some life into Bergman vet Liv Ullmann.
Lost Horizon’s heaven-on-Earth is revealed to be a repository for humanity’s loftiest ideas, an intellectual safety-deposit box tucked away from a world ready to tear itself to shreds. All evidence on display, though, suggests it’s closer to that second rocket from the Y2K episode of Treehouse of Horror (the one that sends Homer and Bart Simpson careening toward the sun alongside Courtney Love, Tom Arnold, and everyone else the world just wanted to get rid of). There’s no philosophy espoused by any resident of Shangri-La more compelling than the one fronted by Harry, whose ditty “Question Me an Answer” is a perky apology for ignorance. And the movie never solves the conundrum of what, specifically, is worth saving from any civilization that the most learned representatives fully expect to destroy itself, other than honky-tonk piano licks and cautionary tales. A few years after the film’s release, the adorably cut-rate disco outfit La Pregunta would pay tribute to Shangri-La with their ditzy refrain, “paradise is very nice.” Hunter’s lobotomized misfire makes La Pregunta sound like Plato.
Nervous executives cut Lost Horizon to shreds from its original two-and-a-half hour running time once they caught wind of just how badly their $12 million investment had gone sour, focusing on the songs, which were among the few respectable elements. Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray release boasts a reportedly fully restored cut of the movie’s original roadshow version, with virtually every interminable minute intact. Then Oscar-fixture Robert Surtees’s cinematography has never looked more crystal clear, and the color balance is surprisingly strong on reds and oranges. As turds go, this one sparkles admirably. The 5.1 lossless Master Audio mix is like having Tom Jones belt "What’s New, Pussycat?" right into your earholes. For 149 minutes. Might I suggest opting for the alternate isolated score track?
One would’ve understood if Columbia Pictures burned every piece of promotional material they had in an attempt to exorcise the studio of Lost Horizon. (It was 1973, after all.) But this release managed to scrounge up a few choice bits of background material, including one alternate version of the song "I Come to You," 25 minutes’ worth of song demos from Burt Bacharach (accompanying a still gallery), and a depressingly optimistic 10-minute featurette on Ross Hunter’s career leading up to the production of Lost Horizon, which he clearly hoped would be his signature work.
The Mayans were wrong. When Liv Ullman sings, "The world is a circle without a beginning," that’s when the world ends.