Monday, April 29, 2019

In Defense of the Musical Lost Horizon

A glimpse of Shangri-La.
It was a boxoffice bomb and savaged by critics. It barely recouped 25% of its budget, leading the movie industry to label it "The Lost Investment." Time hasn't been kind to it. Rather than becoming a cult film, it has been lambasted in books such as The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. And, sadly, it's sometimes listed as a key reason for the breakup of the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

But don't listen to all the naysayers about the 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon. Granted, it's not a good movie, but it's not a horrible one either.

Peter Finch as Conway.
The plot adheres pretty closely to the classic 1937 adaptation of James Hilton's popular novel. En route to Hong Kong, a plane carrying five passengers is hijacked and crash lands in the Himalayas. The pilot dies, but the others survive and are rescued by a mysterious man named Chang. He escorts them to Shangri-La, a paradise sheltered on all four sides by the mountains.

The passengers include: a diplomat named Conway (Peter Finch), his journalist brother George (Michael York), a businessman (George Kennedy), a comedian (Bobby Van), and a photo journalist (Sally Kellerman). Except for George, each one finds meaning to his or her life in the tranquil city and choose not to return to civilization. Unfortunately, George is desperate to leave Shangri-La with a "young" woman named Maria. He refuses to listen to his brother, who warns him of the consequences of his actions.

Liv Ullmann.
Most of the songs are integrated naturally into the plot. Maria sings the haunting "Share the Joy" as entertainment for the new guests. "The World Is a Circle" is performed by teacher Liv Ullmann and her class of children as part of a lesson (the number looks like an homage to The Sound of Music, so it's no surprise that Julie Andrews was first offered Ullmann's role). "Living Together, Growing Together" is presented as part of a ceremony (and unfortunately wastes the singing talents of James Shigeta).

The producer of Lost Horizon, Ross Hunter, is one of many who has disparaged the score. Personally, I thought there were a handful of strong songs: the title tune, "Share the Joy," and "The Things I Will Not Miss." Yes, I cringed during "The World Is a Circle" and "Question Me an Answer," though Bobby Van at least delivers the latter with his usual showmanship. While Van and Sally Kellerman actually performed their vocals, the singing voices were dubbed for Finch, Ullmann, and Olivia Hussey. Finally, it's worth noting that The Fifth Dimension recorded "Living Together, Growing Together" and turned it into a Top 40 hit in the U.S.

Olivia Hussey and Sally Kellerman.
The dancing is another matter, as it's uniformly dreadful except for Van's number. There is a reason why Olivia Hussey and Sally Kellerman did not become dancers!

Lost Horizon was originally conceived as a roadshow presentation, meaning that its extended running time meant that theaters could only show it two or three times daily. However, the studio mandated that it be shortened and 23 minutes, including three songs, were cut from the film (it's still over two hours long).

Burt Bacharach was displeased with the treatment of the score during the editing of Lost Horizon. Some sources claim that Hal David didn't support Bacharach and that led to their breakup. However, in a 2013 interview with The Telegraph, Bacharach says that he wanted to split their profits 60-40 and David refused to accept the lower number, leading to their split and years of legal disputes.

Charles Boyer as the High Lama.
Music aside, Lost Horizon is a by-the-numbers remake of Frank Capra's 1937 version. Peter Finch makes an adequate lead. The film's best scene is the first encounter between him and an unrecognizable and surprisingly good Charles Boyer as the High Lama. Sally Kellerman brings some pathos to her character and Van does what he can with an underwritten role. The rest of the cast looks pretty lost, especially Liv Ullmann, who no doubt hoped to move out of Ingmar Bergman's shadow.

Don't ignore the chance to see Lost Horizon just because it's become vogue to trash it. Watch it and make up your own mind, especially if you're a fan of Burt Bacharach's music. There are better ways to spend two hours...but then I could say that about a lot of other movies, too.


  1. I tried to watch it only once, but was terribly bored. Not even curiosity could make me continue. However, I will make an effort to give a listen to the songs. I've not done that and maybe on their own I will find a favourite or two. I'm sure everyone made an effort in this work. Who knows why some movies come together and others can't find their footing?

    I must take umbrage (Yes, umbrage.) at your "surprisingly good" crack. I converted to the Charles Boyer fan club about twenty years ago, and there no one as rabid as a convert.

  2. I'm not sure that the recommendation to watch something because it's not as terrible as you may have heard is quite enough to get me to watch something :) But this does give me a chance to point out that in the original (which I like) the performance by the actor playing George is about as bad as you'll see in a major movie. I think it shows how much the talent level has improved, where you just don't see such clunky performances even in minor roles anymore.

  3. Yes, John Howard, usually a respectable actor, is pretty bad in the '37 version. Michael York is better, but it's not a well-written part.

  4. I liked your review, Rick, and based on that alone I'll make a point to watch this film if I cross paths with it. However, I won't go into it with high hopes. Thanks!

  5. Let's hope they don't make "Schindler's List: The Musical" either.

  6. Wow, I never heard of this film - and what a cast! It sounds like it may have been better had it been a remake without the musical numbers but if "it has been lambasted in books such as The Fifty Worst Films of All Time" then I'll definitely have to watch it.

  7. I'm a huge fan of the classic Frank Capra "Lost Horizon." This musical version is clearly inferior but not a terrible film.

    The Shangri~la exterior set is actually the castle from the musical "Camelot"after undergoing redressing.
    Later on,it become the Shaloan Lamasery for the TV show "Kung Fu.''

  8. I liked the film a lot, and found it well-made and acted. I watched it again recently after many years and found it as good as I remembered it the first time around. In my honest opinion, it has great production values, and passed the time enjoyably for me.

  9. As much as this film is slated, I first saw it as a 19 year old innocent, with the man I was going to marry, I am watching it now as a 67 year old great grandmother, and yes it is a bit cheesy, but I am so enchanted with the movie and the memories, more important to me now as dementia is setting in. The music does make me cringe, but really it is all good.

  10. I am a huge fan of both the novel, and the Capra film. This version I have seen a few times. I wonder if it might have fared better if it had NOT been a musical. I found the numbers took me OUT of the film. It just might have worked better if it was not a musical? just a thought.

    1. Agree re:musicalNOT... I am too a huge fan of the book and original film

  11. One professional film critic nailed it at the time:
    "Brigadoon with chop sticks, catered by Trader Vics".

  12. I first saw the 1973 LOST HORIZON when it was shown on NBC as a two-night special presentation. Had I not been visiting a friend's house, who wanted to see it, I probably wouldn't have intentionally watched it, but I was happy to discover the Bacharach music too. In the intervening years, I thought back fondly on the film and wanted was happy to see it finally arrive on LaserDisc, then DVD, then Blu-ray. I'm happy it's been preserved in a high definition format.
    It's a gorgeous film, well-produced, and yes, some non-musically-talented cast members bring down that aspect of it. With the right cast, it could have been a highly-respected musical entertainment.