Typically in our Glaring Mistakes section we single out the small, almost inevitable glitches found in even the greatest of movies—a crew member who shows up on camera, a Roman slave wearing a wristwatch or a modern city skyline visible in a period western. Here we single out an entire film—a motion picture so ill advised and misbegotten that it has passed into legend, a monument to bad ideas realized and good will squandered. Say hello to the cinematic wonder that is Lost Horizon.
Based on James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon tells the tale of a disparate group of airline passengers whose plane crash lands near a Utopian village called Shangri-La. First adapted for the screen in 1937, Hilton’s fantasy was directed by Frank Capra and starred Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, H.B. Warner, Sam Jaffe and Margo. Praise came from both critics and audiences, and it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture. (It won two Oscars, losing the big prize to The Life of Emile Zola.)
Thanks to the wild success of The Sound of Music (1965), movie producers fell all over themselves for years trying to find a similar cash cow. By 1969—after a series of expensive flops—producers began abandoning the search, though Lost Horizon could arguably be seen as the last of this wave of hopeful, oversize family musicals. One might also argue that producer Ross Hunter’s enormous success with Airport (1970) added momentum to the endeavor.
Paramount bankrolled the project, with Larry Kramer brought in to write the screenplay. For the role of the teacher, Hunter approached Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur and Julie Andrews—all of whom turned it down, allowing Liv Ullman to step into the part. For the role of Chang, the lamasery postulant, Hunter approached Toshiro Mifune, who also passed, thereby giving John Gielgud the opportunity to star in his first big-budget musical. Rounding out the cast were Peter Finch, Michael York, Sally Kellerman, George Kennedy, James Shigeta, Olivia Hussey and Bobby Van, all actors (with the exception of Van) not necessarily known for their singing prowess. Finch and Ullman’s voices were dubbed for their musical numbers, which were written by one of the era’s most successful songwriting duos.
“When we hired [Burt] Bacharach and [Hal] David (above) to write the songs, we didn’t know they were on the verge of dissolving their partnership,” said Hunter. “When they finally delivered the music, we were already deep into preproduction. We knew it was a bum score, but we couldn’t do anything about it.”
For exterior shots on the Warner Bros. backlot, the castle from Camelot (1967) was reworked, with Tibetan gables replacing the castles medieval turrets and the addition of fountains and grass for the courtyard. After production wrapped, the set remained for several years—often used for the television series Kung Fu—before being demolished to make way for an office building.
The marketing department went full force with movie tie-ins, foisting upon the world Lost Horizon-influenced colognes and soaps by Rijir, rattan furniture by Brown Jordan, a paint-by-numbers set by Craft Masters and a coloring book by Saalfield. The sartorial world did not escape the merchandizing push either, with Periphery putting out a line of women’s attire, Marrakech, Ltd., releasing a series of men’s shirts and Pierre Cardin, no less, creating a line of watches, belts and jewelry—all inspired by the Ross Hunter production. And, of course, various recordings were released, from children’s albums to a bid at a Top 40 hit by The Fifth Dimension.
The films musical numbers veered from amateurish to preposterous; to pick the most successful musical interlude is a taxing proposition. One may find that Bobby Van’s “Question Me and Answer” works best, as he can at least sing and dance. Not so much Sally Kellerman, who sings “Reflections” to an uncomfortable George Kennedy, shifting her weight while standing on rocks near a stream. Kellerman duets with Olivia Hussey in “The Things I Will Not Miss,” set in a library (above) that, we are told, is a repository of the world’s great literature, though the perceptive viewer may discern several volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
“The World is a Circle” has Liv Ullman leading a troupe of spectacularly uncoordinated kids down a mountain trail and over a meadow; at one point she rushes towards the camera until her chest fills the screen. And one production number—“Living Together, Growing Together”—was shortened considerably when preview audiences snickered during the fertility dance (above), choreographed by Hermes Pan and featuring a bevy of scantily clad chorus boys. Consequently, the dance sequence was cut, though, as an effort to improve the picture, it didn’t much matter.
Lost Horizon was released on March 17, 1973, to a critical body that was bothered and bewildered. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote “The film, in addition to packing all of the dramatic punch of a Moral Re-Armament pamphlet, is surprisingly tacky in appearance. When we aren't seeing the magical valley of Shangri-La in long-shot as something painted through trick photography, we see it in close-up as a couple of seedy backlot sets, one of which, the High Lama's palace, looks like Pickfair remodeled as a motel…the second-rate auspices just about destroys everyone.” The Chicago Sun-Times’s Roger Ebert opined, “I don't know how much Ross Hunter paid Burt Bacharach and Hal David to write the music for Lost Horizon, but whatever it was, it was too much…the movie is awful on its own. But the music is really bad. About two hours into the movie, Bobby Van has a birthday party and they sing "Happy Birthday" to him. That's the one you'll come out humming.”
The movie’s soundtrack came out on CD in 1997; the DVD was released in October 2011.
To read more about the fiasco, dubbed “Lost Investment” by industry insiders, check out this terrific piece on Le Cinema Dreams. To sample for yourself what an extraoridinary film this is, here are a few clips.