Frank Capra’s 1937 film Lost Horizon is based off of the 1933 book of the same name by James Hilton. It follows a group of Europeans whose plane from China is hijacked and taken deep into the Himalayas, where they crash right next to Shangri-La. Capra’s Shangri-La is a peaceful and beautiful city surrounded by (and protected by) mountains on all sides. It is inhabited and governed almost entirely by Europeans (it was founded by a Belgian priest, who is miraculously still alive 200 years later), though there are glimpses of the Tibetan natives as (happy) workers in the village and as singing children. Like many of Frank Capra’s films, the message that he wishes to convey to his audience is not particularly subtle. The message here is delivered to the protagonist, Conway, via a speech from the ‘High Lama’ (Father Perrault). War and greed, Perrault says, are ruining the world and will eventually destroy it. Once the world is destroyed, Perrault hopes, the people will find Shangri-La from whence love will spread throughout the new world and the Christian ethic of the meek inheriting the earth shall be fulfilled.
This film is the classic example of the West applying the “myth of Shangri-La” to Tibet. Via this fantasy, Tibet is extremely romanticized.
This can be seen from the movie still to the right. This is the first moment in which the five Europeans enter the city of Shangri-La. Despite the fact that it’s deep in the Himalayas, the city is nearly tropical. There are fountains, fruit trees, and sleek modern buildings. This is all explained by Chang (a European who runs the day to day operations of the ‘Lamastery’) as being possible due to the fact that Shangri-La is surrounded on all sides by mountains. All of these mountains around the city further allow for it to be cut off from the rest of the world (porters arrive every several years). This extreme isolation is similar to the manner in which Ronald Lopez describes the Western fantasy of Tibet: Tibet is portrayed as removed from the rest of the world and exists as a (rapidly disappearing) cure for the West (Lopez 1998: 7-10).
The danger in applying this myth to Tibet, as Jamyang Norbu states, is that Tibet (and Tibetans) end up being typecast by the West (Norbu 2001: 378)*. It can consciously or subconsciously force Tibetans to act in a certain manner in order to fulfill their Western image (an image that Norbu argues that is also slowly becoming their own). It is easy to see how this film helped shape and define the myth of Tibet-as-Shangri-La. Everyone, multiple characters say, is searching for their own version of the peace and happiness that Shangri-La perpetuates. As this film was made between World War I and World War II, this would have been a compelling image for people familiar with wartime atrocities. It remains a compelling image today as well. This movie, however, pinpoints an exact location in the ‘real’ world for this mythical land and it has become regrettably difficult to separate the myth from the reality. Hence the title of Lopez’s book: Prisoners of Shangri-La.
To further illustrate how this mixture of myth and reality is perpetuated still, I have included the video below. It is an Irish pop song from the 1980s that was inspired by Lost Horizon.
Lee Lynch sings about his desire to return to this place that he is separated from, as can be seen in the chorus: How could I ever doubt you/No living without you, Shangri-la/So near so far/Oh God, I gotta make it back to you, sweet Shangri-la. It is essentially a love song, with the singer pining for his lost love, Shangri-La. In the pop tradition of singing a love song, Shangri-La becomes utterly feminized: it is an object of desire that the man has lost. This feminized Shangri-La can also be seen in the film as the person responsible for sending forConwaywas Sondra, a woman. Further, just as Conway eventually falls in love with Shangri-La, he simultaneously falls in love with Sondra. The parallel between the two objects of Conway’s love feminizes the city.
As Norbu claims, the romantic and ubiquitous myth of Shangri-La can be a dangerously self-fulfilling image forTibet. As the film demonstrates, it is a fantasy that people desperately crave and thus, as it has been attached to Tibet for so long, it is difficult to completely remove it from Tibet’s image.
*Norbu, Jamyang. “Behind the Lost Horizon: Demystifying Tibet,” Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies. Eds. Thierry Dodin and Heinz Rather.Somerville,MA: Wisdom Publications, 2001.