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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 2/22/00

Lost Horizon
1937 (1999) - Columbia TriStar

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Lost Horizon Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A/B+

Specs and Features

133 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), B&W, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:19:55, at the start of chapter 16), Amaray keep case packaging, commentary track (on restoration with film critic Charles Champlin and restoration expert Robert Gitt), original theatrical trailer, restoration featurette, alternate ending, photo documentary (with narration by historian Kendall Miller), film-themed menus, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai, Closed Captioned

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 a 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. The passengers are about to give up hope, when suddenly 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 the question remains - 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.

Before I talk about the DVD quality of Lost Horizon, there are some facts I want to make you aware of. Did you know that fewer than twenty percent of the films made in the 1920s survive today, according to a recent study by the National Film Preservation Board? That survival rate drops to ten percent for films made before 1920. Part of the problem is that older films were shot on nitrate-based film stocks, which not only deteriorate into dust over the years if not properly cared for, they're actually volatile (as in explosive). Even modern film stocks have a tendency to decay over time. The original negative for Star Wars had deteriorated so badly by the time Lucas began his Special Edition project, that without restoration, the film might have been lost forever. If we're to preserve our rich motion picture heritage, film restoration must be given the utmost attention and resources by the Hollywood studios. The reason I mention all this, is that Columbia TriStar's DVD edition of Lost Horizon serves as a textbook example of how the DVD format can (and should) be used to help in the effort to preserve films.

Lost Horizon was originally 132 minutes in length when it was first shown in 1937. Soon after, the studio removed some 25 minutes of footage, and altered versions of the film (in various shorter lengths) were released over the years. 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 (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. This DVD is a showcase of their work, and includes the film in the best possible quality, and in its original 132-minute length. The missing footage has been 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. The disc's B&W picture ranges in quality from fair to excellent, and the mono audio is as good as any you'll hear for an older film on DVD.

Better still, the extras on this disc are like a course in film preservation. First of all, you get a fascinating full-length audio commentary track with film critic Charles Champlin and restoration expert Robert Gitt, who was actually involved in the work. Gitt again comments on a 10-minute featurette that compares the film footage before and after the restoration. It also includes 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 presented, which hasn't been seen by audiences since it was originally shown in 1937. Finally, there's a 30-minute documentary on the history of the film's production, filled with interesting behind-the-scenes stories and dozens of never-before-seen photographs and film clips.

Lost Horizon won 2 Oscars back in the day (it was nominated for 5 others) and deserved them. The film ranks easily among Capra's best. And the DVD not only preserves it for future generations, but also meticulously documents the efforts involved in doing so. This disc is an absolute gem, and is a must-have for any complete collection of classic films on DVD.

Bill Hunt
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