By John H. Foote
Not all our revisits of films are about the great ones, the ignored masterpieces or misunderstood films. No, sometimes we go back and explore a huge flop. This is one of those revisits.
Burt Bacharach was one of the greatest song writers of the sixties and very early seventies. Hugely successful, he seemed to write one hit after the next, but that all came to a screeching halt with the musical remake of Lost Horizon in 1973.
How can I describe how terrible the film is and how juvenile the songs are? How about some samples of the awful lyrics written for the characters to sing in the film?
The opening song over the credits is not too bad of a ballad, but things get rolling with “Living Together” once our merry band of kidnapped writers are in Shangri-La.
“Start with a man and you have one,
Add on a woman and you have two,
Add on a child and you have more than three,
You have what is called a family.”
Sung in James Shigeta’s deep voice, it grabs you initially but once you listen to him and watch the “dancers” around him, it becomes downright silly, as though the songs had been written by the editors of MAD Magazine.
Liv Ullman, possibly the greatest actress of her time in the seventies, was used to Ingmar Bergman dramas, deep and intense, and suddenly she is dancing through leafy grasses singing (well, lip synching) with school children who have been choreographed to wave their arms and hope we accept that as dancing. Compared to this the dancing and singing urchins in The Sound of Music seem downright stunning.
Seeking to be profound she sings (or lip synchs):
“The word is a circle
Without a beginning
And nobody knows where it really ends….”
Yeah right, Deep. Profound. Or, this beauty:
“Question me an answer…”
So deep, so profound – song writing at its best? NOT! Laughable, cringe worthy lyrics that this cast of actors were asked to sing with smiles and a straight face. They must have been howling in the sound booths singing this tripe.
My God, the horror, the horror. Watching the film for the second time in 1979 on late night television it felt like the journey upriver in Apocalypse Now, though this time they were led to war torn Cambodia, but a hidden valley with perfect weather, no aging, no sickness, just peace and quiet, meditation and love. And the moment they all began singing, I wanted to run, run as far away as I could but like the curiosity of watching a car accident on a highway, I could not leave. Was it really going to be this bad, all the way through? Yes it was. Oh God, it really was.
With the original film, directed by Frank Capra in 1937, we were given a magnificent adventure film that made a commentary on the rise of Nazism in Germany, though it was very subtle. The story is almost exactly the same in each film, the musical numbers added for the remake. And why?? Musicals had faded with audiences all through the sixties and after a series of duds, seemed on their way out. I guess with the successes of Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and the extraordinary Cabaret (1972), producer Ross Hunter figured now was the time.
Assembling a cast worthy of an episode of The Love Boat, they gathered on the Hollywood soundstages to make the film under the inspired (?) direction of Charles Jarrott
After a group of journalists and American business people board a plane only to be hi-jacked, leading them on a journey over the unexplored Himalaya region where, in trying to land, the plane crashes. Afraid of never being discovered, the people on the plane are astonished to see people approaching the crash site with torches. The wind is fiercely blowing the snow, the weather is freezing, and they are told by the leader, a dignified, older man named Chang (john Gielgud), that they have a long difficult journey to their destination. He checks on the pilot who is dead and returns to lead the expedition to lead them on to their destination.
This is one scene where the acting is actually pretty good. Passing out of blizzard conditions, Chang begins to loosen his coat and hood, leaving the others to follow suit. Ahead of them is a sun-drenched paradise, tropical conditions, beautifully built buildings not unlike the homes of the rich in thirties Hollywood. Art deco reigns supreme. Conway (Peter Finch) is shocked and turns around to see the raging snowstorm behind them, to turn and see the sunshine beauty of where they have been brought.
From here we go downhill, and oh so fast. The superb weather is explained away as being a product of the mountain ranges, and blind luck.
It becomes apparent that their being here is no accident, but it takes a long time to find out exactly why. Chang is a wily one, and tells them little, speaking in innuendoes and half answers. Gradually the group discovers enough about the place, called Shangri-La, to know if they wish to stay or not.
Richard Conway is a famous writer brought here to replace the High Lama (Charles Boyer) who is more than three hundred years old and aware he is dying. His job George (Michael York) is also a writer and wants to go home. Sally (Sally Kellerman) is a pill popping writer (am I wrong to say she was sexy as hell?) who at first wants to take her life, but soon the solitude and peace of the valley overwhelms her, and she finds inner peace, and love with engineer Sam (George Kennedy) who finds gold but is persuaded to use his gifts to build irrigation for the farmers. Harry (Bobby Van) is a hack of a song and dance man, and comic, but what he lacks in gifts on the stage he makes up for in the classroom teaching the children.
Richard falls in love with Catherine (Liv Ullman), the teacher of the children and bathed in serenity each time we see her, while George falls for a dancer, Maria (Olivia Hussey), who longs to see the outside world.
George refuses to stay, and convinces Richard to go with him, taking Maria along. Warned not to take the girl, they soon find out why as she ages rapidly outside the valley, to her natural age of more than 80 years old. Driven mad by the sight of his now ancient lover, George throws himself off the mountain as Richard continues on, eventually picked up by a group of searchers and taken to a hospital where he rants about this strange valley, Chang and Shangri-La. He leaves and the final shot of the film shows Conway moving towards the passageway to the valley, home at last.
The decision to make the film a musical was a complete disaster from the word go. Nothing about the songs worked and their appearances stopped the film dead. Many of the actors gamely did their own singing – Sally Kellerman, James Shigeta and Olivia Hussey. The rest were dubbed, poorly, though George Kennedy trained hard to do it, he just could not make it work.
The performances were pedestrian at best, though at least Peter Finch made the effort. Bobby Van was bright eyed and bushy tailed and absolutely annoying, while Michael York raged throughout the film and one wondered why they did not throw him off the mountain earlier. The great Liv Ullman, used to working with the scripts and direction of Ingmar Bergman, looked lost and a little bewildered by the whole thing. Must have been a hell of a payday for the Swedish great. John Gielgud, looking regal and fine, does good work with the very little he has to do, he might have been a better choice for the High Lama than Boyer who has zero charisma, who would believe this guy was ever a leader of any kind?
Critics massacred the film, rightly so, and it was quickly pulled from release for edits but nothing helped, bad is bad. It remains one of the biggest flops and worst films ever made.
Charles Jarrott, the director, was rarely heard from again.
Give me The Sound of Music every time. And you know how hard that is for me to say.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.