It took British author James Hilton six weeks to write his visionary novel Lost Horizon. It took director Frank Capra two years-and half of his home studio Columbia's annual budget-to bring it to the screen. After a lengthy preamble, inviting audiences to imagine their own ideas of Utopia, the film opens on a chaotic scene at a Chinese airfield.
As hordes of bandits approach, hundreds of refugees scramble to board the last plane out.
Only five people make it: Mildly disenchanted Far Eastern diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), his hotheaded younger brother George (John Howard), embezzler Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), dithery fossil expert Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) and consumptive prostitute Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell).
As the plane flies off towards the Himalayas, Robert realizes that he and his fellow passengers are heading in the wrong direction. They are, in fact, being kidnapped-but why? And where to? The plane crash-lands in the snowy Tibetan interior. The pilot is killed, but the passengers are safe.
By and by, a strange caravan approaches, led by an enigmatic Chinese named Chang (H. B. Warner). Joining the caravan, Conway and his party are led through a treacherous mountain pass and into a land of temperate weather and dazzling beauty. This is Shangri-La, the idyllic lamasery presided over by the aged, wizened High Lama (Sam Jaffe).
In this fertile valley, people are not encumbered by such exigencies as crime, dictators and hatred; instead, everyone is devoted to the pursuit of wisdom and self-improvement-and best of all, the aging process has been slowed to a walk, allowing people to live well past the two-century mark.
Though he still does not know why he was brought here, Conway is quicker to adapt to Shangri-La than his wary fellow passengers. He even falls in love with Sondra (Jane Wyatt), an attractive, intelligent young woman.
Finally granted an audience with the High Lama, Conway discovers that the old man is actually Father Perrault, the Belgian missionary who founded Shangri-La-over two hundred years earlier.
Dying, the High Lama has selected Conway, whose idealism and even-handedness is world famous, to succeed him-and hopefully spread the love thy neighbor edict of Shangri-La to the rest of the war-torn world.
Conway is willing to assume leadership, but younger brother George, his mind poisoned by spiteful Shangri-La resident Maria (Margo), insists upon escaping to the outside world.
The older Conway warns that, despite her youthful appearance, Maria is well past sixty and will surely perish once she leaves Shangri-La; but Maria retorts that the high lama is insane, and that everything he has told Conway is a lie. Disillusioned, Conway agrees to leave with Jack and Maria.
The trek back to civilization is a grueling one, especially for Maria, who-true to Conway's prediction-shrivels from age and dies. Appalled that he has been misled, George kills himself. Weeks later, and amnesiac Conway stumbles into a Tibetan mission, where he is rescued and brought back to England.
When his memory is restored, however, Conway runs back to Shangri-La, and into the arms of Sondra. When Lost Horizon was shown to preview audiences, it ran nearly three hours-and it was a disaster.
In his autobiography, Capra claims to have rescued his pet project by merely burning the first two reels and opening the film with the evacuation scene; In fact, while Capra did remove the film's flashback framework, he made most of his cuts in the body of the picture.
The release length of Lost Horizon was 132 minutes, pared down to 119 when it when into general distribution. When it was reissued in the 1940s and 1950s, it was rather clumsily pared down to anywhere from 95 to 100 minutes.
Only in the mid-1980s was Lost Horizon restored to its original length, with stills used to illustrate certain scenes for which only the soundtrack existed. While not the enormous hit Capra and Columbia had hoped it would be, Lost Horizon was popular enough to allow the name Shangri-La enter the household-word category.
In 1973, producer Ross Hunter felt the urge to inflict a wretched musical remake onto an unsuspecting public.