Along with A TALE OF TWO CITIES, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, and THE LIGHT THAT FAILED, LOST HORIZON represented the best performance possible out of Ronald Colman. And his Robert Conway is the most modern of them (up to the time the films were made). LOST HORIZON is set (as James Hilton intended) in the 1930s, in war torn China. It is not the only reference in the story to the 1930s that Hilton puts into his fable of a paradise on earth.
Hilton had reason to fear about the world he lived in. The Great War (as the First World War was generally called in the 1930s) was still a savage and recent nightmare. The 1920s and 1930s saw dictatorships seize control of European and Asian state, and Democracy retreating everywhere. "Look at the world", says the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), "Is anything worse?" The High Lama is correct - the world is collapsing, and the so-called panaceas (Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Spain, Imperial Japan and it's "Greater Asiatic Co-Prosperity Sphere") are worse than the seeming ineptitude and drift in badly divided France, weakened Britain, and recovering American.
Hilton took Conway, his brother George, Professor Edward Everett Horton, suspiciously quiet businessman Thomas Mitchell, and consumptive Isabel Elsom to an oasis (possibly the oasis) on that troubled old earth - Shangri La, or "the valley of the Blue Moon") where contentment and peace reigned and people could live, if not forever, far longer and more happily than in say 1937 Germany, Britain, France, Russia, Italy, the U.S., or Japan.
On the whole Capra catches the spirit of the novel - his sets were dismissed as being far to simplistic, but as simplicity is the hallmark of life at Shangri-La the critics seemed to miss the point. As a matter of fact, his sets (in a temperate valley in the Himalayas - a real impossibility) are more acceptable than the idiocies of the future world in the contemporary science fiction film THINGS TO COME, where H.G.Wells believes we should live in cities built in caves.
The acting is very good, particularly Sam Jaffe's ancient High Lama (always shot in shadows). Remember, he is over two hundred years old. Today, because Jaffe had a long career in Hollywood (despite being blacklisted in the 1950s), we think of him as an old man in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE or as "Dr. Zorba" in the series BEN CASEY. So we think he must have looked old in real life when LOST HORIZON was shot. Actually, he was in his thirties or forties, so he was not that old. But he gave a performance that suggested he was an old man.
Another member of the cast that I would wish to bring up for consideration is John Howard. He is not recalled by film fans too much, but Mr. Howard was a good, competent actor. That he played Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond in a series of "B" features in the late thirties makes it ironic that he played the younger brother of Ronald Colman here, who had begun the talking picture segment of his career with the same role. Howard does not have a British accent, but he does show the adoration of the younger brother for his famous sibling, and the growing anger and contempt he develops when brother Robert fails to plan for their leaving this prison they were dragged to - note how he wants to return with a bomber to destroy Shangri-La. It is one of the two roles in major films that John Howard is remembered for, the other being "George Kittridge", the erstwhile fiancé of Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, who is pushed aside by both Cary Grant and James Stewart.
As it is one of Howard's best roles, it is nice that when the film was restored (as well as possible) in the 1980s, Howard (one of the three surviving cast members) was able to appreciate it - many of the missing sequences were his scenes. Howard was very happy at the restoration result.
Now, one or two notes that may help appreciate the film a little more. Who is Robert Conway supposed to be? He is called, by the High Lama, "Conway, the empire builder." He is supposedly able to do impossible things - hence the admiration of his brother. When he returns to Shangri-La at the end, the comment of the man telling the story is that Conway's journeys by himself back to his valley was beyond what ordinary men could do. So who is Conway? Well, in 1937, the model for Robert Conway was dead, from a motorcycle accident, for two years. It was, of course, Thomas Edward Lawrence "of Arabia", who had never been in Tibet (officially, anyway) but had served time in the Indian subcontinent area on government business in the 1920s. Quite a model for an empire builder.
The character played by Thomas Mitchell is also based on a real person. Harry Barnard's real name (which I have forgotten) is that of an international financier whose vast empire collapsed ruining thousands of investors. It turns out Mitchell's character is based on Samuel Insull, a mid western utilities empire builder (out of Chicago) whose financial doings brought about his collapse in the Great Depression. Insull fled in disguise to Greece, but was found on a dirty freighter, and returned to the U.S. (where he would stand trial for fraud, but be acquitted). Edward Everett Horton's anger at Mitchell when he learned the latter's identity is understandable. Mitchell's involvement in installing new pipes in Shangri-La mirrors Insull's early days, when he was an electrician, and an assistant to Thomas Edison.
The use of these two real figures as the basis of the characters helped contemporary audiences to accept the background of the plot of the film.