|Inspired by a wonderful birthday tribute to Burt Bacharach over at That Little Round Headed Boy, I decided to seek out a copy of the 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon — that notorious box-office bomb that was hated by critics and audiences alike — but whose soundtrack contains some of Burt's most complex, yet memorable tunes.|
I was determined to write a strong defense of a film that has very few supporters — a film that prompted Pauline Kael to begin her review with, "To lambaste a Ross Hunter production is like flogging a sponge", and which Roger Ebert declared has "the worst single piece of choreography you've ever seen in your life. The dancers march about and twirl their scarves as if Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will had somehow been gotten pregnant by Busby Berkeley." Ouch. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Lost Horizon, and watching it after all these years confirmed that I had been clinging to innocent childhood impressions, for only now have I realized that Shangri-La is a utopia that only a conservative white male could love.
In the winter of 1973, decked out in a brown wash-n-wear polyester suit (and paisley shirt), I attended the gala NYC premiere of Lost Horizon with my father. Though the klieg lights and red carpet might be little more than the embellished memories of an eight year-old, I distinctly remember tugging at my father's hand, terrified that we were about to see something called Walking Tall, which was currently playing at the theater. (Come on, Joe Don Baker is scary!) It wasn't until the lights dimmed and the film began (with its majestic opening shot of the Himalayas) that I felt safe and sure that I was not about to see an angry guy with a piece of wood.
A remake of the 1937 Frank Capra classic (based on James Hilton's novel), Charles Jarrott's Lost Horizon is a fairly-faithful adaptation of the original, though with the added attraction of song and dance. (ACT UP founder Larry Kramer penned the screenplay.) The film opens with our five lead characters barely making a safe escape from an unidentified war zone. Leading the group is diplomat Richard Conway (Peter Finch), an instantly likeable take-charge kind of guy. With him are his uptight younger brother George (Michael York, who looks smashing in a white turtleneck), a pill-popping suicidal Newsweek photojournalist (Sally Kellerman), a crabby engineer (George Kennedy), and a third-rate comic (dancing funnyman Bobby Van). After crash landing in the snowy Himalayas, they are rescued and brought to a hidden valley in the mountains — Shangri-La — where it's always sunny and warm, and whose citizens live long, healthy lives in quiet moderation.
The inhabitants of Shangri-La don't seem to do much. There's no commerce, so no need for money. They work the land, though aren't sophisticated enough to figure out irrigation or damn building. There's virtually no signs of indigenous culture, and everything that exists was brought in by porters over the years. Citizens don't argue or fight — if two men want the same woman, the one who loves her less should step aside for the other man. (The woman's thoughts on the matter are irrelevant.) The ruling class live in hilltop palaces, and though they appear monastic, don't seem to be actively engaged in the spiritual life. The entire place is ruled over by The High Lama (a very old Charles Boyer), a nearly two-hundred year-old Belgian who spends his days in a dark room and speaks of times to come, where the meek shall truly inherit the earth. Day to day affairs are handled by Chang (Sir John Gielgud, with taped eyelids), who is full of advice for our five strandees, some of whom wish to leave Shangri-La, while the others could care less about returning to civilization.
There's an overwhelming sense of chasteness to the whole place, and sex seems for purposes of procreation only, as evinced by the song Living Together, Growing Together, which could easily become the anthem for the anti-gay-marriage-pro-Christian-family right. (It's interesting to note that Kellerman's character was a depressed prostitute in the original. Why she's been changed to a depressed photojournalist is a mystery.) This is a very dull Shangri-La — where neither education nor arts are emphasized, and people are simply....nice. (What Bush & pals must envision for an ideal America.)
|Of course, at eight years-old I picked up on none of this. I was entranced by Shangri-La, and all I wanted was to be one of the children in Liv Ullmann's class, singing The World is a Circle, swinging my arms, and rolling down a grassy hill. I left the theater that night convinced that I had seen the greatest film ever made, and for months to follow I must have listened to the soundtrack over 500 times. I never missed a televised showing of it, and though the magic had worn off by the last time I saw the film (in 1980), I still had a soft spot for it — even if those late night televison broadcasts chopped the film up into ten-minute blocks, sandwiched between ads for C.A.R.E. and Beautiful Mt. Airy Lodge (Your Host With the Most in The Poconos).|
Seeing the film again after all these years, the first thing I noticed was the bizarre casting choices. It's one of the few musicals where most of the cast members can neither sing nor dance. With the exception of Bobby Van, Sally Kellerman, and James Shigeta, all other actors are dubbed by playback singers. The choreography by Hermes Pan (two gods in one!) is jaw-droppingly awful, with stilted, lumbering movements that make everybody look incredibly uncomfortable. Bobby Van does do have a few moments to shine, though he was well past his prime in '73.
There's virtually no chemistry between any of three couples that form -- Liv Ullmann and Peter Finch are too wrapped up in self-doubt (expressed via musical internal monologues) and an overwhelming sense of "what am I doing in this film?" to express any outward emotion. Michael York and Olivia Hussey make for an attractive young couple, but there's not even a hint of romantic or erotic charge between them. And nobody, nobody should ever have to make out with doughy-guy George Kennedy. Sally Kellerman is truly a brave actress for doing so.
As a musical, it breaks with form in that it is almost a full hour before the first song is heard. (Jacques Rivette would do the same thing years later with Haut/Bas/Fragile.) But what a first song it is — Share the Joy, a sitar, brass, and strings affair that reveals Burt's classical training (under Darius Milhaud). The weak link in the songs is Hal David, whose overly simple, often-expository lyrics are nothing like his wonderful pop collaborations with Bacharach. The aforementioned choreography does nothing to help the musical numbers, which at times play out like a pan-Asian Sound of Music. Still, with songs this good, it's easy to forgive the shortcomings. Watching Sally Kellerman and Olivia Hussey sing and dance their way through a library (The Things I Will Not Miss) still puts a smile on my face.
It's hardly surprising that Lost Horizon was a flop in the tumultuous early 70s. Between the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, Watergate, and rising tensions in the Middle East, it's hardly surprising that audiences had little use for a musical utopian fantasy. The pacifist philosophy of Hilton's novel — a mixture of Buddhist and Christian values — is noble, but its emphasis on moderation and isolation is a bit antiquated. But even though my feelings about the film are a far cry from what they were twenty-five years ago, I still find it to be an immensely enjoyable, charming, and entertaining piece of kitsch, and one that I'll return to, if just for the songs.