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Lost Horizon (DVD Review)

19 Dec, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on Demand via Online Retailers
Sony Pictures
$20.95 DVD
Rated ‘G.’
Stars Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann, Sally Kellerman, George Kennedy.

I suppose it’s tacky to plunder Wikipedia for zingers, but a couple Wiki entries re this legendary conversation-stopper cracked me up. One is that the trade name for it among industry wags was Lost Investment; the other is the comment that "it must have arrived in garbage rather than in film cans” — an evaluation that had to have further cemented the bad blood between critic John Simon and Horizon producer Ross Hunter. Three years earlier, some talk show booker with a perverse sense of humor had booked the two on Mike Douglas or Merv or one of those (forget which) when Hunter’s smash hit of Airport came out. Their non-synergy wasn’t pretty; Simon acted as if some idling airplane had left him on the tarmac for seven hours sans lavatory privileges.

On an apparently never-completed promotional featurette that’s part of the surprisingly extensive bonus material for this on-demand release, the now long-deceased Hunter claims that this remake of Frank Capra’s famed 1937 played-straight drama “wasn’t a musical.” Now, don’t you love hearing something like that when the movie’s score has 11 Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs? Though, yes, it’s true that a) the first number here isn’t until 40 minutes in; b) it’s couched more as “guest entertainment” at dinner as opposed to someone just breaking into a song for no literal reason; and c) several subsequent tunes are voice-over musical commentaries on the Peter Finch character’s mental state rather than numbers per se.

Anyway, the picture was such a colossal disaster that its belated DVD release constitutes a contribution to film history. Though this said, I still can’t see what the filmmakers were thinking. Was Hunter, who made glossy entertainments both good and not, oblivious to everything that had happened to the nation’s Zeitgeist in the previous 10 years from JFK’s assassination through Vietnam through race riots through Watergate? Or did he and the studio reason that, for the Easter season of 1973, audiences would want to escape to a world where there was no Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Bob Haldeman, John Erlichman and John Mitchell? In any event, no one cared to sample this version of novelist James Hilton’s Shangri-la — which, as with its print and screen predecessors, is set somewhere in the middle of the otherwise near-impenetrable Himalayas and is a sunshine-y place whose ability to delay the natural aging process far outstrips anything Joan Rivers’ plastic surgeon can do. Until, that is, some 80-something inhabitant elects to leave the place and suddenly turns into Dustin Hoffman in the modern scenes of Little Big Man. Though this yarn is obviously couched as anything but realism, I still can’t figure out how the lackeys who plow through blizzards every couple years to make deliveries manage to get large hardback libraries through the snow – to say nothing of toothpaste and Kotex (though, actually, native males do seem to outnumber women by 6-to-1).

Along with Finch, fellow plane crash survivors include Sally Kellerman (only three years after her MASH Oscar nomination); George Kennedy (barely still riding his 1967 Oscar win for Cool Hand Luke); and, of all people, Liv Ullmann. This means that future Leslie Nielsen foil Kennedy would eventually end up working, thanks also to 1979’s The Concorde … Airport ’79, with both of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona queens: Ullmann and Bibi Andersson. We also see, reunited, the Juliet and Tybalt from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet (or, Michael York and Olivia Hussey); song-and-dance stalwart Bobby Van (at least it wasn’t Keefe Brasselle), James Shigeta (who’d worked with Hunter on the movie of Flower Drum Song); and – in heavy Shangri-la-ish sage mode — John Gielgud and Charles Boyer. Both of them are reduced to frequent utterings of “my child” and “my son” just as you would expect (though not — it was too soon — “My Sharona”).

The good-looking Sony print utilized for this uncut release is much better than the first-run rendering I saw theatrically in Maryland during its local first-run engagement — which looked shockingly muddy for anything shot by Robert Surtees, who at the time was my favorite active old-school Hollywood cinematographer. The friend with whom I saw Horizon speculated at the time that perhaps Columbia Pictures saw what was coming out of the rushes and elected not to throw good money after bad when it came to finely tuned lab work. And one reason this very handsome DVD gets billed as “uncut” has to do with a super-gay beefcake musical interlude that got jettisoned (I was told) even during the BYC platform engagement because audiences were falling out of their seats with hysterical laughter. This showstopper wasn’t, I’m virtually certain, in the Maryland showing I saw because this howler is one I would have remembered. Man.

I do have a soft spot for big-budget disasters as long as they don’t drag or run for four hours, and the only comparable feeling I’ve gotten this year from any other movie came from finally getting to see the uncut Inchon (the version before Rex Reed’s scenes with David Janssen were excised). In terms of fall-out Horizon ended up almost taking down Columbia down the way Cleopatra (saved by The Longest Day’s grosses) almost took down 20th Century-Fox and The Greatest Story Ever Told (whose fiscal drainage was somewhat equalized by the James Bond franchise) severely dented United Artists. Fortunately, producer Hunter’s final big-screen salvo had its own angel: seven months after Horizon opened (and closed), Columbia saved itself by rocking the world of mainstream moviegoers with The Way We Were.

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