Movies about Heaven, such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Stairway to Heaven (1946), sometimes begin with a prologue that bespeaks of timidity, almost apologizing to the audience for the movie they are about to see, as if to say that the story to be told might not be true. This would seem to be rather unnecessary, for movies are usually understood to be fiction unless there is an assertion to the contrary. The purpose of such a prologue is not to keep a naïve public from being misled into thinking that the movie they are about to see depicts Heaven just as it really is, but rather to forestall criticism, to keep people from analyzing the movie too closely and laying bare its absurdities.
Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon is not a Heaven movie, but it is similar, a kind of Heaven-on-Earth story, and so it is that we are not surprised to find that it too begins with a prologue:
In these days of wars and rumors of wars—haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight? Of course you have. So has every man since Time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia—Sometimes the Fountain of Youth—Sometimes merely “that little chicken farm.” One man had such a dream and saw it come true. He was Robert Conway—England’s “Man of the East” —soldier, diplomat, public hero—
This movie is definitely about a place, Shangri-La, that is a combination of Utopia and the Fountain of Youth. As for that little chicken farm, the only thing I know about chicken farms is what I saw in The Egg and I (1947), and there does not seem to be much connection between that movie and Lost Horizon.
Although the prologue says that Conway’s dream came true, the association between this movie’s story and a dream has been established, which is another distancing device sometimes used in Heaven movies, such as The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945). The idea is that if it is a dream, then that should make it immune to criticism, because we all know that dreams do not make a lot of sense. Only a pedant would fault it for being illogical.
The prologue goes on to establish the setting and circumstances. It is 1935, in Baskul, China, which is in the middle of a revolution. Robert Conway (Ronald Coleman) has been charged with the task of evacuating ninety white people from the city. The last plane to leave has just five passengers: Conway; his brother George; Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), a paleontologist; Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), a plumber who built up a thriving utilities company, but then was accused of being a swindler when the stock market crashed; and Gloria, a consumptive prostitute, whom the doctors told a year ago she had six months to live.
The remark in the prologue about Conway’s rescuing “white people” has a racist ring to it, which does not surprise us for a movie made in 1937, but interestingly enough, Conway is contemptuous of that attitude. He asks George, who apparently is Conway’s amanuensis, if the report he sent in said that they saved ninety white people. When George says it did, Conway says, sarcastically, “Hooray for us. Did you say that we left ten thousand natives down there to be annihilated? No, you wouldn’t say that. They don’t count.”
Conway goes on to talk about what he will do when he becomes a foreign secretary. He has a plan to thwart all his nation’s enemies. He says he will disband the army and sink all the battleships. When the enemy arrives at the border, they will be so confounded by his nation’s refusal to fight that they too will lay down their arms. Of course, Conway realizes he is being impractical, saying he will fall right in line and do what is expected of him, because he hasn’t the nerve to do anything else. Note that Conway is not saying his plan would not work, only that he knows how much resistance there would be to it. In other words, the mind of Conway is utopian even before he gets to Shangri-La, which, as it turns out, is not a coincidence.
This is the sort of thing I was talking about when I said that the prologue was meant as a preemptive strike against the kind of criticism one would normally level against poppycock. I don’t suppose I have to say it, but World War II is just four years away from when this story takes place. If England had done what Conway said he would do if he had the nerve, does anyone believe the Nazis would have just said to themselves, as Conway suggests, “These people seem quite friendly. Why should we shoot them?” after which they too would have laid down their arms? Of course not. They would have marched right in, taken over the government, and turned England into a vassal state. But, you see, we are not supposed to make such criticisms. We are supposed to play along with this fantasy.
What the passengers don’t realize, but eventually find out, is that Fenner, their pilot, has been murdered, and there is another pilot, “Chinese or Mongolian,” flying the plane in a direction opposite from where they were supposed to be going, which was toward Shanghai. Eventually, just as the plane is reaching its destination, it runs out of fuel and crashes, killing the pilot. But a rescue party arrives shortly, led by a man named Chang (H.B. Warner), for they have been expecting Conway and the others. After a short climb, but through a treacherous snowstorm, they reach the entrance of Shangri-La.
As soon as they pass through the portal, the wind stops and the temperature appears to be like that of a nice spring day. As they look upon the fertile valley below, Chang, who manages to go through the entire movie with a look on his face and a tone in his voice of insipid serenity, says, “You see we are sheltered by mountains on every side, a strange phenomenon, for which we are very grateful.” Seconds later, Lovett, while taking in the wonder of Shangri-La, says, “Magic.”
This is the first time, but it will not be the last, that the explanation for Shangri-La vacillates between one that is natural and one that is magical. On the one hand, we all know that a valley surrounded by mountains will not cause a change in climate of that magnitude. On the other hand, if the explanation for this place is purely magical, then this will undermine any notion that what goes on in this valley can be extended to the rest of the world, which, as we find out later, is the whole point of kidnapping Conway.
Conway asks Chang what religion they follow in Shangri-La. Chang replies that they believe in moderation: “We preach the virtue of avoiding of excesses of every kind.” We recognize this as the fundamental ethical principle of ancient Greece, formalized into a complete theory by Aristotle. However, Chang goes on to say that they even avoid the “excess of virtue itself.” This makes no sense, as Aristotle pointed out a long time ago. Once you define virtue as avoiding excess, it makes no sense to say that one of the excesses to avoid is virtue. But this is no place to get into the finer points of the Nicomachean Ethics. More importantly, this is an atheistic religion, although no one in the movie actually characterizes it as such, for there is no mention of God.
Conway approves of this ethical religion, saying, “That’s intelligent.” Chang then moves on to the nature of their government. Reading between the lines, we gather that there is a ruling class, to which Chang belongs, and then there are the natives, the subjects they rule over. Class membership is apparently hereditary. No mention is made of holding elections, so this seems not to be a democracy. Chang says that they rule over the natives with “moderate strictness.”
It is not clear exactly what the nature of this strictness is or how it is enforced. According to Chang, they have no soldiers or police because they have no criminals. They have no criminals because there is a sufficiency of goods. But then, where does the strictness come in, moderate though it may be? Chang’s vagueness on this point obscures the absurdity of what he is saying. Let us take a particular example. Let us assume the strictness he refers to consists, in part, of a law against stealing. But no one ever steals, because everyone has everything he might want. Because no one ever steals, there are no police to arrest those who do. But that makes the law against stealing pointless. How can you be strict about a law no one has any inclination to break?
In any event, Conway comes up with an example of something that people might want to possess that sufficiency will not take care of: women. There may be plenty of women in the valley, but women are not fungible. It is in the nature of things that a man will find he wants one woman in particular, and if he cannot have her, he will be miserable, even if there are plenty of other women about that he might have instead. When asked about disputes over women, Chang says it rarely happens, but when it does, the men who are in dispute over a particular woman are quite courteous about the whole thing, the result being that the woman goes to the man who wants her the most.
You see, in the outside world where Conway is from, England in particular, it is left up to the woman to decide which of two men she prefers, if she wants either one of them at all, which she may not. This unenlightened custom causes much grief, in that no matter how much a man might want a woman, he may never get to possess her. How much better it is in Shangri-La, where women have no say in the matter!
All right, women aside, there is so much plenty that no one ever commits a crime. But someone must produce these goods. For example, certain people must grow the crops that produce the abundance of food. Even in Shangri-La, farming is bound to be hard work. Why should the natives spend their days planting and harvesting crops so that others can have all the food they want without lifting a finger? Chang, who, I guarantee you, is not one to ever get behind a plow, says, “We have no money as you know it. We do not buy or sell or seek personal fortunes, because there is no uncertain future here for which to accumulate it.” In other words, the farmer does not sell his crops, he just gives them away. So, why would a farmer produce more than what is needed to feed himself and his family? Why should the natives work extra hard so people like Chang can have everything they need for free? Perhaps this is where the strictness comes in.
Chang admits, almost reluctantly, that there is buying and selling of sorts when it comes to acquiring goods from the outside world, mostly cultural goods like books and works of art, which they are able to pay for because, as Chang puts it, “Our valley is very rich in a metal called gold, which, fortunately for us, is valued very highly in the outside world.” Now, you might be wondering why Chang can’t simply say, “We have a lot of gold in this valley.” This is just one example of the ways this movie tries to impress us with the childlike naiveté that characterizes the mentality of even the ruling class in Shangri-La. Chang has to talk in a way that indicates a lack of sophistication in worldly things such as “this metal called gold.” It would not do for him to evince a keen awareness of what an ounce of gold will fetch on the open market. And yet, it is exactly such knowledge that would be needed to keep from overpaying for the goods brought in from the outside.
Conway says, “There is something so simple and naïve about all this that I suspect there’s been a shrewd guiding intelligence somewhere.” Just as we are left uncertain as to whether it is the surrounding mountains that account for the climate, or whether there is something magical about the place, so too is there uncertainty as to whether the peace and tranquility of Shangri-La is due to something magical or to the influence of someone who designed this society to operate that way. If the latter, then it is possible that someday all the world may be like Shangri-La; if the former, then this magic will never extend beyond the valley.
Chang reveals that it all began with a Belgian priest named Father Perrault, who stumbled into the valley in 1713. One leg was frozen, and since there were no doctors among the natives, he had to amputate it himself. Later, the natives told him, when he learned their language, that that was unnecessary, that his leg would have healed on its own, owing to the salubrious nature of Shangri-La. The natives don’t have doctors because the perfect body in perfect health, having a life expectancy well beyond what is typical for the rest of the world, is the rule. This is borne out by the way Gloria appears to have recovered from her tuberculosis. (She also appears to have recovered from being a slut, looking clean and wholesome.) And once again, Chang attempts a natural explanation rather than a magical one, saying, “Climate, diet, mountain water, you might say. But we like to believe it is the absence of struggle in the way we live.”
Conway expresses amazement, but Chang in turn expresses surprise that Conway is amazed. Referring to books that Conway has written, in which he has “dreamed and written so much about better worlds.” “Or,” Chang continues, “is it that you fail to recognize one of your own dreams when you see it?” Once again, an association is made between Shangri-La and a dream. It is a communist dream, of course, like the one envisioned by Karl Marx: there is no God, there are no capitalists, and there is practically no state, for it has all but withered away.
Being that Shangri-La is like Conway’s dream (or is Conway’s dream?), he is naturally content to stay in Shangri-La. But his brother George wants to get out and back to civilization, even to the point of threatening violence. To find out whether there will be porters coming that can take George out of this place, Conway agrees to meet with the High Lama, who turns out to be Father Perrault (Sam Jaffe). From him Conway finds out that Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt) is the one who suggested that Conway be brought to Shangri-La. (She happens to be the woman Conway has already decided that he wants so much that he expects any rival to courteously let him have her.) The reason for his being brought to Shangri-La is that the High Lama, now over two hundred years old, will soon die and needs someone to take his place, and that someone is Conway. Just as the “religion” of Shangri-La reminds us of Aristotle’s ethical philosophy, so too does the government of this place begin to remind us of Plato’s Republic, in which a philosopher king is in charge of things.
The High Lama had an apocalyptic vision once in which civilization is destroyed by machines of war. Conway’s task as will be to act as a curator, preserving culture in the form of books and works of art, so that he will be able to emerge after the destruction and lead the entire world to become like Shangri-La, fulfilling the “Christian ethic” of kindness.
The next day, in talking with Sondra, Conway marvels over the way he does not mind the fact that he was kidnapped: “I’ve been kidnapped and brought here against my will. A crime, a great crime, yet I accept it amiably.” Well, Conway may accept the whole thing amiably, but I doubt if Fenner would have been quite so forgiving. You remember Fenner, don’t you? The pilot who was murdered as part of the kidnapping plot? Apparently the ethical religion of Shangri-La permits the crime of murder as long as it is done in moderation. In any event, Conway seems to have forgotten all about him.
Meanwhile, George has fallen in love with Maria, who detests Shangri-La as much as he does. We are supposed to think of them as being wrongheaded, as deserving punishment if they leave Shangri-La. Eventually, they convince Conway that all he has been told about this place is a lie, and that furthermore, they need his help to leave with the porters that have just arrived. Reluctantly, he consents to go along. But after they get beyond the realm of Shangri-La, Maria, who claimed that the story about her actually being almost seventy years old was a lie, that she was only twenty, suddenly transforms into an old woman and dies.
Well, that puts the kibosh on the natural explanation for why people live so long in Shangri-La. It’s not just climate, diet, mountain water, or the absence of struggle that allows the inhabitants to enjoy a long life with a youthful appearance. If that were it, we would have expected Maria to grow old in appearance slowly, just as if she really were only twenty. Her rapid transformation into an old woman is reminiscent of Larry Talbot changing from a werewolf back into his human form at the end of The Wolf Man (1941), which also required a magical, supernatural explanation. But if it is all just due to the magical influence of the place, then what hope is there that the way of life in Shangri-La can someday be extended to the rest of the world?
George is so repulsed by Maria’s transformation that he runs away, falling over a cliff to his death. Conway manages to make his way to civilization. But he temporarily suffers from amnesia. When he recovers, he tells his story, and then decides to try to get back to Shangri-La, apparently succeeding in the end.
Why this amnesia? Why couldn’t Conway simply get back to civilization and tell his story immediately? Its purpose is to underscore the idea that maybe it is all just Conway’s dream. In other words, if a man walks out of the mountains and says, “Boy, wait till I tell you where I’ve been,” we figure that he is telling us about something that really happened. Or he knows it didn’t happen, and he is intentionally telling us a tall tale. But if a man suffers from amnesia after having disappeared, we might reasonably wonder, given his abnormal mental state, if he just dreamed it all. Once again, if it is just a dream, then we are supposed to admire the man who had this dream, as if dreaming about world peace were some great accomplishment, and accept it without criticism. And that means we are supposed to admire this movie and accept it without criticism.