BR: Lost Horizon (1973)

July 1, 2013 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / J to L

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Film: Weak/ BR Transfer: Excellent/ BR Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time/ All / Released: December 11, 2012

Genre: Musical / Fantasy / Adventure / Romance

Synopsis: A British diplomat and fellow travellers are taken to a mysterious valley in the Himalayas where no one grows old, but its Asian people do much singing and dancing in non-native yet utterly fluent English.

Special Features:  Isolated stereo instrumental music track / 1973 making-of featurette: “Ross Hunter: On the Way to Shangri-La” / Alternate Music Scene: “I Come to You” / Burt Bacharach Song Demos (mono) / Theatrical Trailer + Teaser Trailer / 2 TV Spots / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film histoian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment

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Review:

Hollywood producer Ross Hunter had built a solid career making glossy, star-studded productions during the sixties (Pillow Talk, Flower Drum Song, Airport), as well as remakes of classics like Imitation of Life (1959) and Madame X (1966), so there was nothing unusual in selecting Lost Horizon (1937), that classic tale of the hidden valley of Shangri-La, for a widescreen update with an international cast singing the music of hit-masters Burt Bacharach & Hal David, and dancing to the nuanced movements of Fred Astaire’s co-choreographer Hermes Pan .

What ultimately emerged on cinema screens (well, fleetingly) was a grand train wreck that ensured the ’73 version would almost disappear from circulation, never appearing on VHS, yet popping up on a Pioneer laserdisc edition in 1992, and quietly as a Sony MOD DVD-R in 2011 with significant extras.

The big question isn’t why remake a classic – Frank Capra’s 1937 film [M] has its own share of flaws, and enhancing Hilton’s free-love tale for the hippy generation seems like a plausible gamble for any Hollywood producer during the late sixties / early seventies – but whether time has mellowed the flaws within Hunter’s production, and proved critics wrong (especially the Medved brothers, who in 1980 nominated the film for a Golden Turkey Award as the Worst Musical Extravaganza in Hollywood History).

Although screenwriter Larry Kramer (Women in Love) is credited with adapting the script from James Hilton’s novel, there are whole chunks of dialogue clearly lifted from the ’37 film, including the ludicrous philosophical declaration (presumably from the novel) where Kindness is Better than Struggle. Kindness is great, and the people of Shangri-La – high and low thinkers alike – may understand English and French from their peculiar lessons begun after kindergarten, but their Kind Lives must have inbred / perpetuated mental indolence, because it took an outsider like engineer Sam Cornelius (George Kennedy) to craft an irrigation system so women need not carry buckets of water up steep hills to their terraced crops.

Quite surprisingly, director Charles Jarrott sometimes mimics whole montages from Capra’s film – namely the opening sequence where diplomatic Richard Conway (Peter Finch) flees in a DC3 with fellow while folks in the Chinese province of Baskul explodes in civil war – and with rare exceptions, the musical numbers have a perfunctory directorial style that doesn’t exploit the rich 2.40:1 ratio in Panavision.

What screenwriter Kramer did right was expand on characters given short-shrift in Capra’s film (the ’37 version underwent a significant post-production and brutal re-cuts, losing valuable scenes of character development over the years), but some necessary scenes involving more philosophical discussion were reduced and reconfigured for musical numbers – with grievous results.

Bacharach’s scores during his brief period as a film composer tended to hover within a kind of Bavarian jazz lounge style, which gave most of his output a sameness of sounds; Casino Royal is elegantly orchestrated, but its oompa-pa bawdy style isn’t dissimilar to his comedies (After the Fox, What’s Up Pussycat?) and western (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) – only the hit themes (with lyrics by Hal David) really held their own as pop-jazz classics. To Hunter, it seemed logical to engage the composer and lyricist of the free love hippy ode “What the World Needs Now is Love “ from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) to write a full score for this supposedly lavish 2.5 hour epic.

Unfortunately, while the melodies are catchy and the score’s orchestrations are a clean balance between orchestra and light pop, the lyrics are astonishingly moronic, reducing most of the musical numbers into the staggered impact points that made the ’73 version such a train wreck.

A fertility song – “Living Together, Growing Together” – is an insipid parade of smiley faced extras bisected for a moment by a strange ribbon spinning sequence that’s oddly reminiscent of Pan’s choreography for eponymous character’s entry into Rome in Cleopatra (1963); and there’s a central ‘dance’ featuring two elevated parents performing a dangerous hand-off with their infant child like some holy football.

Olivia Hussey’s song & dance intro (“Share the Joy”) is tepid and seems almost impossible to believe it was choreographed by Pan, yet his low-point is the little hip-jiggle and stone tossing that make up the introspective song Sally Kellerman uses to convince George Kennedy (fresh from Hunter’s Airport) to give up his quest for stealing Shangri-La’s gold and just chill out and go with the flow like herself and the rest of the Shangri-La-ers.

Leads Finch and Liv Ullmann have some genuine screen charisma as a couple, but Finch’s acceptable hybrid of playing Conway with a little Ronald Colman (who starred in the Capra film) and Gary Cooper is neutered once he attempts to sing; and Ullmann – whose character of the local teacher was heavily distilled into a vacuous blue-eyed doll – is unfortunately given one of the film’s most moronic musical numbers, prancing around with school kids in the arm-waving Bavarian circus romp “The World is a Circle” – perhaps the film’s second-worst song after “Living Together, Growing Together.”

The couple’s most embarrassing moment occurs in the romantic clincher “I Might Frighten Her Away,” where a wide-eyed, grinning Ullmann appears on the Lamasary’s steps like a possessed Reagan from The Exorcist [M] (the resemblance of her expression to the possessed child is truly uncanny), and Finch attempts to lip-sync his words with stilted stage bravado (and kind of evokes a singing Richard Burton, as both actors share stiff jaws and shoulders when projecting Great Words of Emotional Impact beyond the camera lens).

Non-singers Ullmann, Finch, and Hussey were dubbed, so their lip-syncing to songs is rather wobbly, whereas Bobby Van (who held his own in Kiss Me Kate) comes off as the most professional in spite of having to croon the idiotic “Question Me An Answer,” with its faux Asian harmonics. Prolific TV character actor James Shigeta (who co-starred in Hunter’s Flower Drum Song in 1971) also gets to use his pipes, but his big number is the ridiculous “Living Together, Growing Together” / baby football celebration.

Neither John Gielgud nor Kennedy sing in the existing cut, but Kellerman’s two efforts are as nuanced as her odd physical performance style. Charles Boyer (who also doesn’t sing) plays the High Lama Father Perrault and is surprisingly good, and although his dialogue is similar to Sam Jaffe’s in the ’37 film, Boyer gives it more gravitas, making his two scenes with Finch among the film’s highpoints.

Like Kennedy, York also doesn’t croon a single tune, but unlike his ’37 counterpart, he’s been given more scenes with love interest Hussey (a great coup of stunt casting, reuniting the actors after their fiery romance in 1968’s Romeo and Juliet)which fixes an existing flaw within the original film: the severely truncated relationship between Conway’s younger, impetuous brother George, and the supposedly 20 year old woman who spins lies and convinces the brothers to leave the Lamasary with tragic results. It’s perhaps Kramer’s most important script augmentation, although one suspects that because the ’73 version contains scenes present only in part in the reconstruction of Capra’s 132 min. cut, Kramer may extracted material from either the longer shooting script, or bothered to consult with Hilton’s novel and fix potential continuity holes.

With few exceptions, the ’73 film follows the same scenes and order as the ’37 version (including Conway’s preposterously successful journey back to the Lamasary in the finale), but Kramer bothered to give almost equal time to the secondary characters, which in the reconstructed Capra version isn’t as balanced; the primary focus in the ’37 film remains the romance between Conway and Catherine, and some important philosophical exchanges between Conway and Chang which were further distilled in Hunter’s Panavision remake.

Jarrott’s visual approach is to keep things wide and simple, so there are few kinetic sequences beyond the opening flight from rebels, but Bruce Surtees’ lovely compositions are on occasion a little overlit, and lack the more natural and occasionally dramatic lighting style of the ’37 version. Jarrott had evolved from actor to TV director in Britain, and while his historical diptych Anne of a Thousand Days (1969) and Mary Queen of Scots (1971) made him a viable film director, his theatrical output was rather banal, which perhaps made him suitable again as a generic TV director in the U.S. (Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story, A Promise Kept: The Oksana Baiul Story).

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The Home Video Release

The running times and specifics of what material – songs and dramatic scenes – that were cut from the theatrical version remain hazy. Reportedly running 150 mins., the film was reduced to 143 mins., while other sources state 3 musical numbers and short extensions were cut, boosting the cut footage count to 23 mins.

The deleted musical numbers were restored for Pioneer’s 1992 laserdisc, which also included an isolated mono music track. This roughly 148 / 149 min. version seems to be the source for Sony’s 2011 DVD-R, itself likely the result of Sony at one time planning their own Blu-ray edition before stepping back and becoming a licensing corporation.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray contains a gorgeous HD master with discrete 5.1 sound that’s very robust. The details in Sony’s transfer are superb – in one shot, the pattern of a cheese cloth draped over the lens to diffuse midday light is visible – and the colours of Jean Louis’ pastel-hued costumes really glow. This is an exceptional transfer, and fans of the musical will be delighted it finally looks and sounds proper. (When originally released, the film was also shown in 6-track 70mm blow-up prints.)

Extras (all in HD) ported over from Sony’s MOD disc include a full screen 1973 making-of featurette (“Ross Hunter: On the Way to Shangri-La”) and a gallery of theatrical and TV trailers which collectively demonstrate how Hunter was trying to brand himself as a bringer of quality productions with international, family-friendly appeal. The trailers are a little clunky – each is trying to sell a combo of Ross Hunter Magic + romance + action + song – whereas the featurette has plenty of behind-the-scenes footage showing the sets (including the refitted Camelot castle set from 1967, which is frankly no less authentic that the Art Deco creation in the ’37 version), and costumes, plus a glimpse of the still-deleted reprise of “Living Together, Growing Together” sung by extras, Kellerman, and Kennedy after building a water conveyance system.

Both DVD and BR include an alternate cut of Finch and Ullmann’s “I Come to You” scene atop an expansive valley, and a lengthy montage of Burt Bacharach performing demo versions of the songs against an animated filmstrip backdrop with vintage production stills.

Exclusive to TT’s BR is a crisp isolated music track that features the instrumental score and songs (minus vocal tracks), and Julie Kirgo cites the film’s pros and cons in her liner notes which seek a redress of the film’s legendary status as a mega-bomb.

Just as Hilton’s novel and the resulting ’37 film were populist statements against wars that were throughout the globe during the late thirties, Hunter’s film is also a time capsule of an attempt to offer a message of hope through its featured (and very white bread) characters: a diplomat (Finch), tired of stomping out racial, political, and egotistical strife between various cultures and countries; a burnt-out, drug addicted Vietnam war photographer (Kellerman) finding meaning in a tranquil world steeped in kindness to one and all; and an engineer / former embezzler (Kennedy) who regains self-worth and repents for past sins by bringing modern conveniences to improve the lives of the valley’s ‘little people.’

Hunter’s film is still a mess of a wreck – amid the producer’s good creative intentions are the slow-motion collisions which hypnotized bad movie aficionados, and the Bacharach / David tunes are evil corkscrew songs whose facile lyrics refuse to vacate one’s consciousness for days (“Living Together, Growing Together” has the same tempo as a fast walk down the sidewalk) – but Sony and TT deserve credit for not just releasing the most complete version possible (the soundtrack LP contain a paltry 35 mins. of score & songs), but giving it the special edition treatment on DVD-R and BR respectively.

Fromage or a maligned classic, Lost Horizon deserves a little respect after being absent from circulation for decades, and given the film’s scoring pedigree, it’s taken far too long for Bacharach and David’s rare poke at an original musical film to be seen and enjoyed by fans in its original form. For some candid recollections by a former usher during the film’s first week (and its recutting soon after), read the final third (and reader comments) of DVD Savant’s review.

Interestingly, Hilton’s novel was previously adapted as Shangri-la, a stage musical in 1956, and later filmed as a Hallmark TV special in 1960 with new songs for the feature-length show that’s vanished into oblivion. Perhaps Ross Hunter’s version may be a masterpiece in comparison.

International film and TV adaptations of James Hilton’s works include Lost Horizon in 1937 [M], 1960, 1973; Knight Without Armor (1937); Good bye Mr. Chips in 1937, 1959, 1969, 1984, and 2002; We Are Not Alone (1939); Rage in Heaven (1940); Random Harvest in 1942 and 1961; and So Well Remembered (1947).

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© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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