I love a really famously bad movie, me, but the problem is that a lot of the actual famously bad films don't turn up on TV a lot. There's a class of bad movie which has become celebrated for its badness – the much-discussed 'so bad it's good' type of film, usually made on a low budget and often belonging to a disreputable genre – but the real stinkers of years gone by tend to vanish into obscurity. Luckily, the rise of the high-number movie channel means that obscurity isn't as obscure as it used to be. Which was how I came to happen across a screening of Charles Jarrott's 1973 movie Lost Horizon. I think I must have heard hushed, shocked whispers about this film, but the reality of it still came as rather a shock.
I think I must have read James Hilton's hugely popular original novel, many years ago, but it's the 1937 version of this story (directed by Frank Capra) that I'm most familiar with. The 1973 version opens in a broadly similar manner: there is unrest on the cards in the remote Asian city of Baskula, with everyone trying to get the hell out of Dodge before some guerrillas arrive. This includes a bunch of foreigners, most prominent amongst them being Richard Conway (Peter Finch), who is some sort of diplomat or trouble-shooter for the UN. Conway manages to get on the last plane out of Baskula, along with the kind of mixed-bag of fellow travellers that puts one in mind of a disaster movie of sorts – there's gruff engineer Sam (George Kennedy), jaded journalist Sally (Sally Kellerman), out-of-place vaudeville comedian Harry (Bobby Van), and Conway's own brother (Michael York). Little do any of them suspect that their pilot has been replaced by a mysterious stranger…
(I suppose the 26 year age difference between the two Conway brothers is just about explicable – maybe they're not full brothers, or one of them is adopted. But you do wonder that nobody took one glance at Finch and York together and said 'Father and son, I could maybe believe, but brothers? You have to be kidding me.' Then again, as we shall perhaps see, whoever was in charge of preventing bizarre missteps and misjudgements on Lost Horizon seems to have been asleep on the job, or possibly even to have died there.)
Soon enough the refugees notice that their plane, rather than heading east to Hong Kong, is going the other way, and eventually crash-lands somewhere in the Himalayas. But Conway is clearly the kind of chap who gets kidnapped in planes that then crash all the time, and stays remarkably cool. This is justified when a group of locals in thick furs turn up, led by the enigmatic Mr Chang (John Gielgud, whose preparation for playing someone Asian basically extended to sticky-tape on the eyelids).
Chang leads them all back to his home in an idyllic valley, protected from the snow and ice by circling mountains, and the location of Shangri-La, a lamasery devoted to the creed of kindness and politeness. Shangri-La is almost totally isolated from the outside world and so the party will have to stay there for a while at least. So far, as noted, the film has vacillated between seeming like a low-rent disaster movie and a somewhat tepid adventure film, but the middle section of the film gets underway with the first of many songs. In amongst all the singing and dancing, various subplots play out for most of the refugees, while Conway Major discovers that they were kidnapped and brought here: the current boss of Shangri-La, who is two hundred years old and has one leg, is trying to recruit him as a successor. Meanwhile, Conway Minor has fallen in love with a local (Olivia Hussey) – well, given she looks and sounds European and is called Maria, you have to wonder exactly how local she is, but I digress – and is keen for them all to leave. Will Conway Major choose the outside world or Shangri-La?
Now, normally, Lost Horizon would have ended up as just a fairly bad movie, because this is one of those stories that's very much of the era in which it was written. The film is shot through with problematic attitudes and assumptions that, even worse, it doesn't even seem to be aware of. Viewed as a film of its era, the Capra version is still charming and engaging entertainment, but for a Hollywood movie from the early 1970s to treat the whole of Asia basically not as a place but as something that happens to westerners – well, as I say, problematic doesn't really begin to cover it. We have already touched upon the issue of Gielgud playing someone called Chang; we should probably also mention that all the genuinely Asian characters in the movie are basically obliged to stay in the background – when the westerners require love interest they either find it with each other, or conveniently European residents of Shangri-La turn up. Perhaps one should not be surprised, for the fabled lamasery of Shangri-La resembles a second-rate resort hotel more than anything else; I can't imagine the place getting an especially good score on TripAdvisor though.
What raises, or more accurately lowers, Lost Horizon to a whole different level of badness is the decision to do it as a musical. Now, I'm not saying that grafting songs onto an existing story is a necessarily bad idea – that's basically the principle of opera, after all – but the way in which it is done here is compellingly horrible. For one thing, the pacing is just plain weird: there are no songs at all for the first forty minutes of the film, then about eight in the space of an hour. It's a disconcerting shift in emphasis. The closing section of the film is likewise resolutely non-musical, leaving all the numbers sandwiched together in the middle. But there is more, much more than this. It is rather noticeable that most of the cast can't sing: there is extensive use of dubbing for the actual songs. They can't dance worth a damn, either: the film's big numbers are mesmerisingly cack-handed in their staging.
As I mentioned, all the songs are crammed together in the middle section of the film, and the fact that most of them are genuinely grim (working on this movie split up Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and nearly put Bacharach into retirement) makes this a peculiarly gruelling film to watch. The succession of blandly upbeat songs essentially espousing hippy virtues – peace, love, family – could almost drive a person to violence, even without watching some of the accompanying routines – often, these do not resemble choreography as much as people undergoing rehabilitation after joint replacement surgery, while at one point 'Living Together, Growing Together' is paused while a large group of men in tangerine nappies perform massed rhythmic gymnastics. The overall effect is extraordinary: just a few seconds of 'The World is a Circle' or 'Question Me an Answer' and I find the will to live starting to leave my body. It may be best to watch Lost Horizon with a defibrillator on standby.
Perhaps the most positive thing I can say about Lost Horizon is that I don't really see how it managed to lose the $51 million ascribed to it by one website (it only cost $6 million to make in the first place), but this is more about basic mathematics than any intrinsic quality of the film. It is dim-witted, patronising, weirdly paced, very variably acted, consistently badly sung and danced, poorly directed, and has nothing to say for itself that doesn't feel trite and obvious. Apart from that, though, I suppose it is not all that bad.