Release Date: March 17, 1973
Runtime: 150 minutes (feels like it!)
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Charles Jarrott
Cast: Peter Finch; Liv Ullmann; John Gielgud; Sally Kellerman; George Kennedy; Michael York; Olivia Hussey; Bobby Van; James Shigeta; Charles Boyer
Hoo-boy! Where to start with this one?
This is Ross Hunter’s infamous musical version of James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon.” Essentially laughed off the screen in 1973, Columbia Pictures was so ashamed of this movie that they never released it on home video (until they recently decided ‘What the hell!’ and released it on DVD on October 6, 2011 – available at Amazon), even though it clearly cost a bunch of money and had some big name (for the time) stars in it. In fact, in film circles, this cinematic dung heap is known as ‘Lost Investment.’ Ouch!!
To be fair, it is tough not to view this movie nowadays without being at least somewhat biased, given its tremendous reputation. I will try, however, to be as objective as possible. The story kicks-off in a fictitious Asian country where a revolution is about to take place. Richard Conway (Peter Finch), some sort of global diplomat, corrals the last remaining Americans onto a plane headed for Hong Kong. The passengers include his brother, George (Michael York), engineer Sam Cornelius (George Kennedy), alleged comedian Harry Lovett (Bobby Van), and pill-popping journalist, Sally Hughes (Sally Kellerman). But, surprise, the plane is hijacked and heads west, instead of east, and crash lands in the middle of nowhere. Just when the group has resigned itself to the fact that they could be stranded for a very long time, a monk named Chang (John Gielgud!) and his band of merry monks arrives and escorts the group to his lamasery, in the utopia known as Shangri-La. Shangri-La is some place…no one ever grows old, the weather is better than San Diego, and everyone has this perma-smile on his or her face.
Now here is where the movie really gets weird, as it turns into a full-on musical, complete with songs by none other than Burt Bacharach and Hal David!! Wasting no time, Sally seems to be thinking what the rest of us are, and tries to jump off a ledge…only to be stopped by Brother To-Lenn (James Shigeta), sort of Shangri-La’s valet. While the rest of the group gathers for dinner, Olivia Hussey, as the beautiful Maria, treats them to a song-and-dance number called “Share the Joy,” which will, unfortunately, become the movie’s anthem. At this point, you really begin to notice how much of a product of the 70’s this movie is. Not just in the music, but in dialogue (hard to believe that this schlock was written by “The Normal Heart” playwright, Larry Kramer). Everything is spoken in terms of 1970’s New Age-y wisdom, especially by Chang, who spouts winners such as: “We rule with moderate strictness and, in return, we are satisfied with moderate obedience. As a result, our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest.” There must be some type of liquid anti-depressant in that water that all those extras seem to be lugging around.
The rest of the plot concerns each individual’s acclimation to Shangri-La, and their decision whether to stay or to leave. The longer they stay, the more apparent it becomes that they may have been brought to Shangri-La on purpose. Da-dum……
The story now plays out amidst several of the most oddly staged musical sequences you’re likely ever to see. The lackluster choreography by Hermes Pan, consists of little more than the swinging of one’s hips and the flailing around of one’s arms. This is never more evident than in the “Sound of Music” rip-off number, “The World is a Circle” and during Sally Kellerman’s hilarious solo “Reflections.” Talk about graceless!! Only Bobby Van proves at least partially talented during his moderately entertaining number, “Question Me An Answer.”
As for the singing, well….apparently, someone thought it was a good idea to get non-musical performers (with the exception of Van) to appear in a big-budget movie musical. Everyone is dubbed, badly, except for Van, Kellerman, and Shigeta. The non-singing talents of Peter Finch, in particular, are underlined by the decision to have most of his songs presented as his inner thoughts! When he does get the opportunity to lip-sync, it’s actually quite astounding how unmatched his lips are to the soundtrack. Oy!! Liv Ullman fares no better, really. She is unquestionably talented, as her years as Bergman’s muse will attest to, but here she has this catatonic look on her face that is just creepy. The best I can say about Michael York’s performance is that he looks great in a turtleneck. The only time I was somewhat engaged was during Charles Boyer’s (!) two scenes as the High Lama…probably because he was sitting down and not flailing around like the rest of the cast.
This movie was released at a time when big, splashy movie musicals were on the cusp of being passé, and audiences stayed away in droves. It has become a legendary cinematic misfire that everyone involved, I’m sure, would like to have erased from their resumes. Of course, the film has its defenders, but the only way I can defend this film is in terms of high-quality camp. In that respect, it will remain alongside “Xanadu” and “Glitter” as big budget movie musical catastrophes that bad cinema aficionados must see before they die.
I give this film two reels because, while not a good film by any stretch, it really is a sight to behold…just cover your ears!