By Christopher Langley, Eastern California Film Historian
“Did you say we saved ninety white people? Good. Hooray for us! Did you say we left ten thousand natives down there to be annihilated? No. No, you wouldn’t say that. They don’t count,” speaks Robert Conway played by Ronald Colman, hero of “Lost Horizon” near the beginning of the film. He adds, “Everybody wants something for nothing—if you can’t get it with smooth talk, you send the army in.” This scene of Conway’s profound disillusionment with political life and British Imperialism was in the film when released in 1937, but was cut in the 1942 rerelease.
“The last sentence [of Conway’s] reflected a bitter cynicism towards his country’s rulers indifferent attitudes toward people of color. Such truly idealistic talk must have been shocking when first coming from a movie screen in 1937,” writes Chale Nafus, Director of Programming, Austin Film Society. After much work in the 1970’s on restoration, the 25 minutes excised from the film in the preceding decades were restored. Stil the film “Lost Horizon’ is still classified as missing by many critics and film buffs because so many scenes were rewritten, or refilmed or removed by order of Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures.
Its basic financial failure at the time was an enormous disappointment to director Frank Capra. Instead of seeing it as his masterpiece as he had at first, his reevaluation of the film in the 1950’s caused Capra to comment, “I thought that the main part of the film should have been done better somehow. I got lost in the architecture, in Utopia, in the never-never land, and it was only toward the end of the picture that I got back on track with human beings,,,, This is common for one who wants to exploit a theme, and gives the theme too much a part in the story. I wavered several times. I shot several endings before I decided how to end it.”
With “The Adventures of Marco Polo” released in 1938, the failures are clearer. Gary Cooper was miscast. Instead of a laconic cowboy, the film needed a swashbuckler. There just isn’t enough action to support the audience’s interest. Second, the film blew entirely any historical accuracy. Polo did not travel alone, but instead with family members. He wasn’t the first European to visit China, just the first to write about it. He actually may never have made it to China at all. I found Sigrid Gurie’s portrayal of Princess Kukachin, unconvincing, based on strange stereotypes of Asian women at the time. She definitely reaches for “exotic” in her portrayal. Samuel Goldwyn hyped her as “The Siren of the Fjords” only to have it revealed during shooting by gossip columnist Louella Parsons that she was from Flatbush, Brooklyn. So it went with the first director John Cromwell being released after one week because of “creative differences,” and Archie Mayo being brought in after auteur William Wyler turned the job down.
Then there is Kublai Khan played by George Barbier as a kind of happy-go-lucky Dutch Uncle, Basil Rathbone as the quintessential villain Ahmed planning to over throw the emperor, and for me a cloying rather than comic relief caricature by Ernest Truex of Binguccio who when Polo enters Peking is being carried on his back. Really? For me the worst is Kaidu (Alan Hale), an opposing leader capturing Polo to pimp out to his wife Nazama (Binne Parnes) as a sex surrogate, so he could carry on a dalliance with Lana Turner, in her third credited role as Nazama’s maid. Seriously.
Obviously, both films are full of Asian women as stereotypes: seductive, strange, secretive and silly ( four “s” of feminine Orientalism).
“The Inyo Independent” of October 15, 1937 mentioned that “Marco Polo” was in the area filming. “A large number of United Artist actors were in Lone Pine from Saturday until Tuesday filming scenes of ‘Marco Polo’ starring Gary Cooper. Shots were made in the Alabama Hills and at the sand dunes in Olancha. After leaving Lone Pine the company went to Tioga Lodge where several camels were used in the picture.”
In the case of “Lost Horizon,” the main connection locally is with the Sierra Nevada seen through the hijacked airplane’s windows as it is going towards Shangri-La. I think I even saw Mt. Whitney relocated to Tibet. There is an affective scene of refueling on a dry lake that many mistake as the Owens Lake. It is actually Lake Lucerne.
Little can be said about “Marco Polo” except for the simplistic and inaccurate view of Chinese culture and history. Polo, if he did visit China, visited it 150 years before the Great Wall of China, in its brick manifestation as it is seen in this movie. I understand when occasionally timelines are altered in a film for dramatic license. But this film was made with almost aggressive and outrageous lack of concern for historical accuracy.
“Lost Horizon” is a more serious and thoughtful film. It has its problems but raising the idealism of a world without war, where all peoples can live in harmony, is worth sitting through the film. The restoration is generally beautiful, the film carefully made, and it is even fun to fly through the Sierra Nevada from your armchair. It is a film easy to find on DVD and there are many extras of interest that are well produced. If you have the inclination, go for it.