Shangri-La in Books, Movies, and Legend

I recently wrote a short story about a group of people trying to find Shangri-La. For decades, the name has stood for an earthly paradise, difficult to attain. The name was so popular in the 30’s and 40’s that before it was renamed Camp David, Franklin D. Roosevelt named the presidential retreat ground, Shangri-La. After my story was finished, I began to research this mythical place about which I realized I knew very little.

The name, “Shangri-La” entered public awareness through a novel and a movie, which I will discuss today. In my next post, I will explore the Tibetan legend of Shambhala from which core elements of the story may derive.

In David Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, Hugh Conway, a world-weary British diplomat and WWI veteran, along with three others refuges from an uprising in India, board a plane that is hijacked to the remote mountains of Tibet. They crash land in the snows and find their pilot dead. The group is rescued by a postulant lama named, Chang, who leads them to the hidden lamasery of Shangri-La, high above a fertile and temperate valley. Here Conway finds peace, the stirrings of love, and a sense of purpose when the High Lama tells him he has been chosen to oversee the mission of Shangri-La – to preserve the best of modern civilization during a world war the lama, (who is 300 years old), has seen in vision.

Did Hilton foresee WWII when he wrote his book in the early 30’s? Perhaps, but he also studied a 1931 National Geographic account of an expedition to the borders Tibet. Unexpectedly temperate valleys lie along the Nepalese border, and Hilton may also have read of the legend of Shambhala, with a similar prophesy of a world war. This prophesy is part of the Kalachakra teaching cycle the Dalai Lama presents, most recently in Washington, DC, last summer.

Lost Horizon won public notice only after Hilton published, Goodbye Mr. Chips, the following year. Because it was later published as Pocketbook #1, Lost Horizon has been mistakenly called the first American paperback.

Frank Capra read Hilton’s book and immediately decided to make the movie version. Production began in 1936, with a budget of $1.25 million, the largest for any film at the time. After a $777,000 cost overrun, Lost Horizon, was released in 1937 to critical acclaim. A New York Times reviewer called it, “a grand adventure film, magnificently staged, beautifully photographed, and capitally played.” It won Oscars for Art Direction and Film Editing, and was nominated for Best Picture.

Both the book and the movie seem dated now. The romantic vision of humans-as-noble-savage will not appeal to our modern sensibility. The idea that people will be good if freed from want echoes both the pacifism that flourished after the first world war and the socialism that grew in response to the hard times of the ’30’s. I believe in the “higher vibration” of certain places, yet when Chang tells Conway the healing properties of Shangri-La have even eliminated human jealousy, it breaks my “suspension of disbelief.”

Even with this kind of flaw, I enjoyed the book and the movie. The specifics of the Lost Horizon’s 75 year old vision may be dated, but the archetypal longing for a golden age and heaven on earth is not. The book and movie tap into this, and the tale of paradise found then lost evokes our longing for the Garden of Eden, Atlantis, Avalon, and Shangri-La. “We are stardust / We are golden / and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden,” sang Joni Mitchell in her song about Woodstock, another manifestation of longing for a world of peace and joy.

This longing will not go away because it expresses our true nature, according to the view that gave birth to the legend of Shangri-La. Next time we’ll look at the legend of Shambhala, which carries predictions that will echo some we have seen in Lost Horizon.

2 thoughts on “Shangri-La in Books, Movies, and Legend

  1. Glad you enjoyed the info. I found the book at the library, but the ebook text is also available from Project Gutenberg, Australia, here:

    The iTunes rental version of the film includes 27 min of footage that was cut from the released version. Part of the motive was that the movie was popular with troops during WWII, and the cut section includes an early scene with an anti-war tirade by Conway.



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