Release Date(s)1937 (September 16, 2016)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures/Sony (Via Vision/Madman Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
Often overlooked in any discussion of the films of director Frank Capra, Lost Horizon remains a romantic masterpiece, and is one of my favorite of his works. It’s romantic in the classic sense – a evocative, soft-focus vision of a mysterious utopia created by lofty and noble ideals. Adapted from the James Hilton novel, Lost Horizon tells the story of English refugees fleeing the 1935 revolution in China. Lead by diplomat Robert Conway (played by Ronald Colman), the group manages to catch the last plane out. But rather than heading east, towards the ships that will take them home, it flies west towards the Himalayas. The hijacked plane eventually crash lands deep in the frozen mountains, at the very roof of the world. Just as the passengers are about to give up hope, a band of locals arrives claiming to have been expecting them. After an arduous climb through treacherous cliffs and icy caverns, the band arrives at their destination, a lush and temperate paradise known as Shangri-La, nestled in a high mountain valley and completely cut off from the rest of the world. The people of the valley give the refugees a warm welcome, and life couldn’t be better. Shangri-La is Conway’s dream come true: There’s no crime, no greed, no suffering… just a wonderfully peaceful existence. But questions remain: Why was the group taken there against their will? And when a man finally gets his dream, can it ever be enough?
Capra was at the height of his game as a director with Lost Horizon. The film took more than two years to complete, and used what was (at the time) the largest set ever constructed in Hollywood. Lost Horizon moves at a swift pace, thanks to clever editing, and features inventive cinematography and a terrific score by composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Coleman is perfect as the world-worn English diplomat on a fast-track political career. Jane Wyatt is charming as his love interest and one of the caretakers of the valley. And there are a couple of other familiar faces as well – or should I say, a familiar face and a familiar voice. That’s Thomas Mitchell as the swindling Henry Barnard. Mitchell was a Capra favorite, appearing also in his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. And you might recognize the voice of Edward Everett Horton. He plays Lovett here, but he’s better known for narrating the Fractured Fairy Tales segments of TV’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Lost Horizon was originally 132 minutes in length when it was first shown in 1937. Soon after, Columbia Pictures removed some 25 minutes of footage and subsequently released shorter versions of the film (in various lengths). When the studio went to look at the original negative in 1967, they found that it had deteriorated beyond repair, and no copies of the original 132-minute cut were known to exist. The best existing copies were located, and efforts began in the 1970s to locate the missing footage in various film archives around the world. After years of searching, the film’s complete 132-minute soundtrack was discovered, along with all but 7 minutes of the missing footage (again in varying levels of quality). Sony Pictures and the UCLA Film and Television Archive used every trick at their disposal to restore the film, including making a new high-definition transfer and using digital technology to clean and enhance the picture and sound. The result of that effort first appeared on DVD in 1999, a release that included the film in the best possible quality at its original 132-minute length. The missing footage was replaced with still photographs taken on the set, and in some cases, freeze frames from the film itself. It works well enough, and the result is wondrous. Now that transfer has finally appeared on Blu-ray, though not in an official U.S. release by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, but in a Region Free release by the Australian distributor Madman Entertainment (which recently released Universal’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Series on Blu-ray as well – see our review of that set here).
I’m pleased to report that the Blu-ray’s picture quality is very good, and a significant improvement upon Sony’s standard-definition presentation. The B&W image is clean, crisp, and stable at almost all times. The image has always had a bit of a soft quality to it, with moderate grain apparent, and the level of detail varies given the uneven condition of the sources used for the missing footage. But if you were pleased with the restoration as it appeared on DVD, you’ll be even happier seeing it here in high-definition – everything gets a few degrees better. The audio is the exact same English Dolby Digital Mono mix that appeared on DVD and it’s as good here was it was there. It’s mostly clear and is about what you would expect for mono audio on a film of this vintage.
The Blu-ray carries over most, though not all, of the previous DVD extras. They begin with a 10-minute featurette (with restoration expert Robert Gitt) that compares the film footage before and after the restoration. It also offers a look at the altered World War II introduction to the film, a glimpse at the only surviving stock footage from the original camera negative (it looks gorgeous), and deleted scenes (with Gitt reading from the shooting script, as no audio exists). The film’s alternate ending is also included here, as is a vintage theatrical trailer. Included too is a newer documentary that wasn’t on Sony’s disc, but that the studio released later on DVD (in the Frank Capra Collection box set) and Blu-ray (in their Mr. Smith Goes to Washington set) – the 109-minute Frank Capra’s American Dream, narrated by Ron Howard. Sadly missing, however, are the 30-minute featurette on the history of the film’s production (which was filled with interesting behind-the-scenes stories and dozens of never-before-seen photographs and film clips) and the great feature-length audio commentary with Gitt and film critic Charles Champlin. So if you want to keep those, you need to hang on the original Sony DVD.
Lost Horizon won two Oscars back in the day (it was nominated for five others) and deserved them. The film ranks easily among Capra’s best. Though the presentation is far from perfect, it’s a joy to finally have it in high-definition on Blu-ray. Short of rare revival screenings, this is absolutely the best way for fans and cinephiles to experience Lost Horizon, as it marks a definite image improvement on Sony’s already fine DVD release. You can currently pick up this Region Free Blu-ray from Amazon for about $30. At that price, it might not be for everyone, but it’s a must-have for fans.
- Bill Hunt