Lost Horizon(Twilight Time Blu-ray)
Directors - Charles Jarrot
Cast - Peter Finch, Liv Ullman
Country of Origin - U.S.
Discs - 1
Distributor - Twilight Time
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 3/5
In an last-ditch attempt to flee a war-torn nation, five people - United Nations civil rights activist Richard Conway (Peter Finch), his London Express reporter brother George (Michael York), suicidal Newsweek journalist Sally Hughes (Sally Kellerman), engineer Sam Cornelius (George Kennedy), and third-rate entertainer Harry Lovett (Bobby Van) - all board the last plane out before rebel forces take the airfield. During their escape flight the quintet notices that their nowhere near their intended destination of Hong Kong. Instead the plan ends up crashing in a remote and uninhabitable area of the Himalayan mountains. The survivors are greeted by a band of travelers led by Chang (John Gielgud), who wishes to take them to the safer environs of the city of Shangri-La. A valley with fantastic weather conditions thanks to being bordered entirely by the mountains, the city welcomes Richard and his fellow visitors with open arms. They soon find that the lifespan of a citizen of the city is much longer than the average human being thanks to Shangri-La's healing properties.
Though George has nagging suspicions about the place and wants nothing more than to leave and return to civilization, the others all find themselves embracing the hospitable climate and finding more and more reason to stay permanently. Richard falls in love with singing schoolteacher Catherine (Liv Ullmann), Sally and Sam find love with each other, Harry learns that his fondness for music and dance can be taught to the children of the valley, and even the prickly George becomes smitten with villager Maria (Olivia Hussey) - who shares his yearn for escape from the comforting confines of Shangri-La. All seems to be well until Richard discovers that the hijacking of their plane and being brought to Shangri-La was all arranged on behalf of the city's leader, the High Lama (Charles Boyer), who has decided to make Richard his successor now that he is dying. The choice has now fallen to Richard to either risk leaving the safety of the city for a perilous and potentially fatal journey back to civilization or accept his destiny and remain in Shangri-La for the rest of his life. Tragedy strikes, musical numbers ensue.
Nothing makes sense anymore. I requested the new Blu-ray of the 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon, which was based on the classic novel by James Hilton that inspired the 1937 film version directed by Frank Capra that is regarded as one of the best films ever made, because as a bad movie connoisseur I do so cherish the concept of Hollywood's biggest celluloid mistakes being released in sparkling high definition to be digitally preserved until the planet is destroyed by a dinosaur riding an asteroid. It's like an errant father being confronted with the bastard children he sired over the years with a variety of one night stands unbeknownst to his family, and not only do they want to sue him for back child support but they also want to take his last name and be invited to all of his family functions from now on. So a few nights ago I put Twilight Time's limited edition Blu on, got comfortable, and prepared for a night of unrestrained, unintentional hilarity as only an honoree of The Golden Turkey Awards could prepare me for. When the movie ended almost two-and-a-half hours later I was visibly stunned. I fully expected to heckle Lost Horizon non-stop, Statler and Waldorf-style, for the entirety of its mammoth running time (expanded for this release) but instead found myself actually enjoying the movie, regarded for decades as one of the worst piles of celluloid ever shat into existence, as more than a handy source for corny jokes and snide insults that are the fodder for the most loathsome late night talk show monologue. My kind of humor, essentially.
As a rule I tend to loathe most musicals primarily because I just can't stand it when the plot progression stops cold for musical numbers that fail to add anything to the story other than some impressive dance choreography and the occasional lyrical craft. More often that not the music is pretty terrible. But then again I have never been a fan of most stage and screen musicals, show tunes, and the Great White Way. Music and movies are two of my greatest passions, and yet very rarely can I abide the two combining forces unless their names happen to be The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Blues Brothers. Lost Horizon won me over, though it took a mighty effort to get me to the point of reluctant appreciation. Viewed in the context of the changing social and political landscape that defined the 1960's and early 70's, Lost Horizon is a movie that wishes it could garner appeal by claiming to be the product of a more innocent bygone era. But as it was made at a time when the Vietnam War had long reached its bloody turning point, American anti-war protesters were being shot down on American soil by American soldiers on the order of American politicians, and the administration of President Richard Nixon was committing criminal abuses of its office with righteous indignation, it was never going to have that option. Lost Horizon was born out of a last desperate stand by the old guard at the major Hollywood studios to resist the onslaught of the young turk filmmakers who were proving successful at remolding the paradigm for populist movie production in the industry. Musicals were still big box office on Broadway but movies like Mame, Star, and Hello Dolly (exclamation points intentionally left out) arrived on cinema screens with all of the fanfare and excitement of a dictator's public execution, with just as much prefabricated joy. Lost Horizon, the brainchild of producer Ross Hunter, was no different.
Hunter, the former bit part actor who found his calling behind the camera rather than in front, became a major player in the industry producing light-hearted comedies, war dramas, and musicals throughout the 50's and 60's. During that time he had nurtured the career of the influential German filmmaker Douglas Sirk and helped make Doris Day a movie star, so his contributions to cinema cannot be easily ignored. He scored one of the biggest hits of his career with a blockbuster adaptation of Arthur Hailey's best-selling novel Airport that spawned a minor franchise of three sequels (Airport 1975 is my personal favorite) and opened the door for many hysterical camp classic disasters to flood theaters in the decade that followed. Hunter's filmography reads like the kind of resume that will always get a person feted in Tinseltown rather than ostracized. They didn't pay the guy the big buckaroos to make arthouse endeavors; they paid him to make them rich, and so he did. Of course once Lost Horizon belly flopped at the box office his fortunes quickly dried up and Ross Hunter's producing career would be over long before the decade was out. Hardly a fate deserving of an individual who merely wanted to help beat back the march of progress and bring cavity-inducing entertainment to the masses while fattening his own bank account in the bargain. Wait a minute, actually that's a very fitting fate for this clown. See you in Hell, Hunter!
Hunter selected Charles Jarrott to serve as the director on Lost Horizon, which basically meant that Hunter called the shots on every aspect of the production while Jarrott complied dutifully. Jarrott wasn't some hot shot director with enough clout to enforce his will on shoots. He was a willing servant of the producers and studios and his films were usually very solid and professional-looking efforts with precious little to distinguish them from other, better films of their type. His credits included Mary, Queen of Scots, The Other Side of Midnight (the movie that everyone thought would be a bigger box draw in 1977 than Star Wars - guess how that worked out?), and Disney's horribly botched attempt at creating a superhero franchise, Condorman. Those three titles should give you an indication of the kind of movie you can expect with the name Charles Jarrott attached: unexceptional, inoffensive, pleasing to the moneymen, disposable pap for theater owners to shill to the rubes like bottles of Grandad's Cure-All. Jarrott ended his career making bland made-for-television films that saw him once again acting on the dictates of a higher power - in this case the network suits - and preferring to not make waves. Many directors built careers along those lines, but very few people remember their names. Just seems like such a waste of talent. Jarrott's yeoman-like directing skills serve the production of Lost Horizon well as he takes full advantage of the expansive and costly sets designed by Oscar-winner E. Preston Ames, another old hand at big screen musicals (Gigi, Brigadoon), which were built entirely on back lots and soundstages in Burbank. The warm, crisp cinematography by Robert Surtees, one of the greatest directors of photography in cinema history (his credits include The Bad and the Beautiful, Ben-Hur, and The Last Picture Show), is one of the film's strongest virtues and it fits this reinvention of Hilton's novel very well. Visual effects great Matthew Yuricich (Blade Runner, North by Northwest) contributes some stunning matte paintings that add immeasurable depth and wonder to the artificial world of Shangri-La.
The project was built around eleven new songs by the partnership of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The duo had just won an Oscar for their composition "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" which they wrote for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bacharach on his own had scored countless hit tunes for various popular artists. The team was on of the proverbial world but when they got the call to score Lost Horizon Bacharach and David's partnership was already feeling massive strain. By the admission of nearly every person involved with the production the songs they produced for Lost Horizon is light years away from approximating their best work, and those folks may be on to something. But as I personally have never been too knowledgeable where the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David was concerned the songs of Lost Horizon sounded just fine to me. Some of the actors like Kellerman and Van even had extensive musical theater experience, while the majority of the cast had to lip sync their big numbers to pre-recorded tracks performed by real singers. Bacharach and David may not have been operating at the top of their game but they still managed to dash off some songs that are enjoyable in a broad, homogenized, Sunday church picnic way. The majority of my childhood was spent being compelled to accept and love innocuous garbage like this before I started developing a mind of my own as I entered my teenage years and began to embrace books, music, and film that challenged those preconceptions of popular and intellectually nourishing culture that had been forced upon me by adults who felt it was easier to make me step in line with the rest rather than allow me to flourish independently. But I can look at a movie like Lost Horizon and cut through the decades of miserable press and derision heaped upon it by a critical class that had absolutely no idea what constituted the dregs of cinema. The musical numbers espouse innocent ideals of love, family, and building a utopian society that is the realization of every eternal optimist's greatest fantasy. The lyrics are syrupy sweet and lack genuine craft at times but the skillful arrangements and energetic performances go a long way towards masking those glaring defects. I can't help but admit that long after the movie was over I still found myself humming "The World is a Circle" from time to time. The songs may not have helped the box office fortunes of Lost Horizon but some of them like the plain weird "Living Together, Growing Together" carried the water for its legacy by becoming moderately popular hit singles for other artists.
You don't have to be familiar with the creators to appreciate their music from a cultural standpoint, and this was the early 70's we're talking about here. This was the last stand of the uncool ruling class, the squares had lost control of the industry they once dominated with an iron fist, and even with social and political upheaval becoming an everyday way of life in America sturdy vestiges of blandness and inanity from The Brady Bunch to Scooby-Doo cartoons to the Osmonds still had a foothold in the nation's hearts and minds. The entertainment industry was basically at war with itself and the independent-minded maverick writers, directors, and shaggy-haired film school students were loudly making their voices heard. All the while the ticket-buying moviegoers - young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 - were beginning to pay attention. For a scant few years they saw through the bullshit fantasies that Hollywood had been selling them for decades and they had willingly bought by the bucket load and started to evolve and develop as mature audiences. It wasn't long before the studios regrouped and luckily fell into a new paradigm of mass-market celluloid swill in the form of the summer blockbuster event movie and the short-lived victory of the New Hollywood crumbled faster than the fall of Saigon. If Lost Horizon had cut out the musical numbers, amped up the action, and come out in theaters a few years later, it probably would have been a smash hit.
Playwright Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart) had previous won acclaim for his screenplay to Ken Russell's Women in Love, but the similar duties he performed on Lost Horizon didn't exactly win him many new fans. Though his characters are somewhat relatable they are little more than archetypes waiting for the right match of script and actor to elevate them beyond those two-dimensional boundaries. The acting is also functional but no one is a particular standout. Peter Finch, Michael York, and George Kennedy acquit themselves just fine on the male side of the cast. Liv Ullmann is lovely to look at though sometimes struggles with her neutral accent. Sally Kellerman is a reassuring presence given her song and dance chops and her past work on the classic Robert Altman films M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud and those qualities serve her performance well when the movie fails to provide her with a character worth playing. Hughes starts out as a suicidal basket case and experiences a full blown epiphany during a scene that must have been cut from the script because she undergoes that transformation without much explanation. None of the characters have an arc save for Richard because he's the only one who has reason to be in Shangri-La; everyone else is just along for the ride. Olivia Hussey must have thought that always playing the doe-eyed, extremely vulnerable innocent no matter the role would be her ticket to fame and prosperity. And no amount of graceful presence and classical acting can make me believe for one moment that John Gielgud can believable playing a character named Chang when he has not a drop of Asian blood running through his veins. Ditto Charles Boyer, the dapper gentleman star of golden age cinema, as the High Lama, though Boyer's scenes with Finch are some of the finest non-musical moments in the movie as they achieve a certain poignancy and sadness. But the unforgivable offense committed by the filmmakers of casting Caucasian actors as the two most important Asian characters in the story while reducing the actual Asian performers in the cast to subservient bit players and background color casts a dark pall over those otherwise fine supporting turns from Gielgud and Boyer.
During its original theatrical release Columbia Pictures exhibited Lost Horizon nationwide in both 35 and 70mm prints. For the film's premiere on Blu-ray Twilight Time has chosen to present Lost Horizon in the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio that accompanied the 35mm prints. The 1080p AVC-encoded video transfer looks and sounds remarkably sharp and rich with lush colors and warm interior hues. Grain is very low and there is little visible sign of print damage. The expansive sets and location photography look the best, and after enduring years of cropped broadcast television prints and a limited-edition laserdisc release that went out of print years ago the impeccable vistas filmed in the glories of Panavision seem positively revitalized once again in their intended widescreen format. The original mono soundtrack from the 35mm release has been left off this release, but the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track goes a long way toward replicating the Dolby Stereo 70mm 6-track sound. Dialogue and music sound the best, with the Bacharach/David songs getting a huge boost from the 5.1 upgrade. Noise reduction is high and distortion is very low, practically non-existent. English subtitles are also included.
In addition to Twilight Time's customary isolated score track which features the complete Bacharach/David soundtrack in impeccable clarity the Blu-ray supplements include theatrical and teaser trailers in HD, a pair of television spots, the vintage behind-the-scenes featurette "Ross Hunter: On the Way to Shangri-La" (10 minutes), a 2-minute alternate scene titled "I Come to You" which is in fact a deleted musical duet between Finch and Ullmann, and eight original song demos performed by Bacharach with alternate lyrics by David (24 minutes). Producer Hunter is not only all over the vintage short, but he also "hosts" the full-length trailer, indicating that this was definitely a producer's film and not a director's film. Good thing for everyone else involved as Hunter also shouldered the lion's share of the blame when Lost Horizon flopped big time. Last but not most is another standard TT Blu-ray extra: a catalogue of other titles currently available from the company via the Screen Archives Entertainment website, and a few genre-specific titles that have been long sold out.
Nowhere near as agonizingly awful as its reputation would have you think, Lost Horizon is a quaint, corny, and sweet-natured misfire with more honest entertainment value than in what passes for a musical these days in Hollywood. I'll take this over that Rock of Ages horseshit any day. Twilight Time's fantastic limited edition Blu-ray features a stellar new picture and sound quality and a few fascinating archival supplements. Anyone looking for a decent musical to watch or another legendary bad movie classic to tick off their bucket list could do worse than check out Lost Horizon.