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By Daniel Lammin
8th September 2016

It's always a risky move when a filmmaker with an established brand or style ventures into unusual territory. For them, it's a chance to expand their artistic practice and interests, but when millions of dollars are involved, it’s a huge financial risk for a studio. Back in 1937, legendary filmmaker Frank Capra already had two Oscars to his name and had essentially built the reputation of Columbia Pictures. He could do whatever he wanted, and chose to adapt James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizon’. After a series of heartfelt personal dramas, Capra was expanding his scope towards the epic. Audiences, however, weren’t so willing to go with him.

Set in 1935, the film follows a group of westerners evacuating the Chinese city of Baskul during a revolt. Led by diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), the group find themselves in peril when their plane crashes into the Himalayas, but they are rescued and brought to the secret and mysterious valley of Shangri-La, a sheltered paradise of sun and vitality within the freezing mountains. Initially resistant to the unusual valley and its impossible inhabitants, the group begins to split between those (like Conway) enchanted by the valley, and those determined to exploit its riches.

Compared to his other films like ‘It Happened One Night’ and ‘Mr Smith Goes To Washington’, ‘Lost Horizon’ works on an enormous scale, the production one of the biggest ever mounted at the time. It’s unlike most American films of the period, possessing a texture more akin to the great films of Powell and Pressburger. It’s a piece of idealistic magic realism, moving from a thrilling opening action sequence to the stunning execution of Shangri-La itself. And yet, amongst the scale and grandeur of the film, Capra never loses sight of what makes his films so memorable – their characters and their heart. While the supporting characters might seem two-dimensional by our standards, they’re still fleshed-out and full of conviction, especially Coleman as Conway, who gives a nuanced, wonderful performance. Once the survivors find themselves in the valley, the film becomes a series of discussions about human nature and greed, and it’s a credit to Capra that they never feel disingenuous or trite. In fact, there’s a danger to the philosophies of ‘Lost Horizon’, a pacifism that seems reactionary. This might be the most extraordinary thing about ‘Lost Horizon’: even with its thrilling story, its technical precision and its sweeping grandeur, it has such conviction in its intentions. It might be a lot for an audience to take in, but it’s a marvel that it has the guts to say it at all.

Unfortunately, audiences and critics didn’t bite. The film wasn’t the success that Capra hoped for, and over the intervening years, the film was cut down continuously, eventually losing around 25 minutes. In fact, the editing of the film was to turn it onto a pro-war film once the U.S. entered the Second World War, something so fundamentally contradictory to the film itself. Starting from the 70s, an enormous restoration was undertaken, but while a complete soundtrack for the film was found, large sections of the footage has never been recovered and had to be replaced with still photography. What makes this Blu-ray release from Via Vision so exciting is that it showcases the recent 4K restoration which not only captures the film in high definition but includes an extra minute of recently recovered footage.

I first saw ‘Lost Horizon’ in my early 20s and was instantly enchanted by it. There’s something so beguiling about it, a gorgeous mix of old Hollywood charm, grand visual storytelling, terrific performances and a clear, powerful message. There aren’t many films quite like it, which explains why it’s taken many decades to acknowledge it as the classic that it is, especially thanks to this masterful restoration that goes some way to repairing the damage inflicted on this important piece of American cinema.

First, the good news – the 1080p 1.33:1 transfer comes up an absolute treat. Thanks to the 4K restoration, ‘Lost Horizon’ has never looked better (proven by the standard definition extras included). The image is surprisingly crisp for a film that’s had as hard a life as this one, and the grain structure is maintained in a way that preserves the organic look of the film without overcrowding the clarity of the image. Of course, sections of the reinstated footage don’t fare quite as well, some of it too poor to hold up in HD, but this is a fault of the source material rather than the restoration. The bad news is, the only audio we get is a Dolby Digital Mono track. While ‘Lost Horizon’ was never going to have a bombastic surround sound track, it’s a pity we aren’t getting the original mono track in a lossless format. This might have been the only sound track at Via Vision’s disposal, and we should still be glad to have the film on Blu-ray, but with Umbrella doing similar with their recent release of ‘Road Games’, including a lossy track rather than a lossless, let’s hope this isn’t a trend we’ll see more of for Australian consumers.

‘Lost Horizon’ works on an enormous scale, the production one of the biggest ever mounted at the time. It’s unlike most American films of the period.

Again, there are positives and negatives about the extras included in this Blu-ray release. The restoration demonstration (10:41), alternate ending (2:37) and theatrical trailer (0:51) from the DVD release are both included, the former highlighting some of the changes that have occurred to the film over the years, but the audio commentary and photo-documentary haven’t been carried over. Perhaps this material wasn’t licensed for this release, but it is disappointing. What we do get (which almost makes up for that loss) is ‘Frank Capra’s American Dream’ (1:49:05), a fantastic feature-length documentary on Capra, his films and his place in the history of cinema. Narrated by Ron Howard, it features interviews with Capra’s collaborators, contemporaries and admirers, it covers the entire sweep of the director’s career in great detail, and makes up for the loss of those extras.

As well as this world premiere Blu-ray release of ‘Lost Horizon’, Via Vision are also releasing a number of classic Hollywood films on Blu-Ray for the first time anywhere in the world, including the acclaimed Tennessee Williams’ adaptation ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’, featuring powerhouse performances from Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, and Cold War thriller ‘Fail Safe’ from director Sidney Lumet.

RELEASE DATE: 07/09/2016
RUN TIME: 2h 13m
CAST: Ronald Colman
Jane Wyatt
Edward Everett Horton
John Howard
Thomas Mitchell
Isabel Jewell
H.b. Warner
Sam Jaffe
DIRECTOR: Frank Capra
WRITER: Robert Riskin
PRODUCERS: Frank Capra
Harry Cohn
SCORE: Dimitri Tiomkin
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