The film is a remake of Frank Capra's film of the same name, with a screenplay by Larry Kramer. Both the 1937 version and this one adapted their story from James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon.
This was the final film produced by Ross Hunter.
This version is much closer to the 1937 film than to the original James Hilton novel. It tells the story of a group of travellers whose aeroplane is hijacked while fleeing a bloody revolution. The aeroplane crash lands in an unexplored area of the Himalayas, where the party is rescued and taken to the lamasery of Shangri-La. Miraculously, Shangri-La, sheltered by mountains on all sides, is a temperate paradise amid the land of snows. Perfect health is the norm, and inhabitants live to very old age while maintaining a youthful appearance.
The newcomers quickly adjust, especially Richard Conway (Peter Finch), the group's leader. He falls in love with Catherine (Liv Ullmann), a school teacher. Sally Hughes (Sally Kellerman), a drug-addicted Newsweek photographer, is suicidal at first, but begins counselling with lamas Chang (John Gielgud) and To Len (James Shigeta) and finds inner peace. Sam Cornelius (George Kennedy) discovers gold, but Sally convinces him to use his engineering skills to bring better irrigation to the farmers of Shangri-La instead of attempting to smuggle out the gold. Harry Lovett (Bobby Van) is a third-rate comic and song and dance man who has a flair for working with the children of Shangri-La.
Everyone is content to stay except Conway's younger brother, George (Michael York). George has fallen in love with Maria (Olivia Hussey), a dancer, and wants to take her along when he leaves. Chang warns Richard that Maria came to Shangri-La over eighty years before, at the age of twenty. If she were to leave the valley, she would revert to her actual age.
Richard is summoned to meet the High Lama (Charles Boyer), who informs him that he was brought there for a reason, to succeed him as the leader of the community. However, on the night that the High Lama dies, George and Maria insist to Richard that everything the High Lama and Chang have said is a lie. They convince him to leave immediately.
Still in shock from the High Lama's death, Richard leaves without even saying goodbye to Catherine. Not long after their departure, Maria suddenly ages and dies, and George falls to his death down an icy ravine. Richard struggles on alone, ending up in a hospital bed in the Himalayan foothills. He runs away, back to the mountains, and miraculously finds the portal to Shangri-La once more.
Lost Horizon is considered one of the last in a string of box office musical failures which came in the wake of the success of The Sound of Music. Attempts to update the idea of Shangri-La with its racial inequalities intact, coupled with old-fashioned songs effectively sealed its fate according to New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. She noted that Shangri-La was depicted as:
a middle-class geriatric utopia [where]... you can live indefinitely, lounging and puttering about for hundreds of years... the Orientals are kept in their places, and no blacks... are among the residents. There's probably no way to rethink this material without throwing it all away.
After derided preview screenings Columbia Pictures attempted to re-cut the film, but to no avail. Critic John Simon remarked that it "must have arrived in garbage rather than in film cans." The songs were written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, whose long and successful partnership was effectively terminated by their experiences working on the score. Bacharach felt that the producers were sanctioning weakened versions of his music, and he attempted to exert greater influence over what was being developed. However this led to him being banned from the editing suite. His animosity towards David, whom he felt was inadequately supportive, destroyed their professional relationship. Bacharach's own vision of the music was later realised in his album Living Together (1974).
Lost Horizon was such a poor performer at the box office that the film subsequently gained the nickname "Lost Investments." Bette Midler alluded to it as "Lost Her-Reason" and famously quipped, "I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical."
The film was selected for inclusion in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, co-written by critic Michael Medved. The film is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.
However, star Peter Finch did say he enjoyed making the film.
Larry Kramer has publicly acknowledged that he is not particularly proud of his workmanlike job adapting the original film's script for this film. However, hot on the heels of Kramer's Oscar-nomination for the screenplay for Women in Love, the deal he engineered for this, combined with savvy investments, made it possible for him to live the rest of his creative life free of financial worries. In that sense, this film enabled Kramer to devote himself to the gay community activism and the writings (e.g., his ground-breaking AIDS play, The Normal Heart) which came later.
In his 2013 autobiography, Burt Bacharach cites Lost Horizon as having come close to ending his musical career. He stated that taken in isolation the songs worked, but failed in the context of the film. He stated that he was eventually banned from the dubbing studios at Todd-AO because of his increasing criticism of how the material was being handled. Ultimately the experience caused a rift between Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, one which was never to be professionally reconciled.
Of the lead actors, only Sally Kellerman, Bobby Van, and James Shigeta perform their own singing. George Kennedy was coached by Bacharach but was not used as a vocalist in the finished film. Olivia Hussey, Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann were dubbed by Andra Willis, Jerry Whitman, and Diana Lee respectively. Some of the children who provided the singing voices of the children of Shangri-La were Alison Freebairn-Smith, Pamelyn Ferdin (a child actress who was the original voice of Lucy Van Pelt in the Charlie Brown TV specials), Harry Blackstone, III, David Joyce and Jennifer Hicklin.
The soundtrack was moderately more successful than the film, peaking at #56 on the Billboard 200. Commercially successful singles were issued of both the title song, performed by Shawn Phillips, and "Living Together, Growing Together", by The 5th Dimension, the latter being the band's last Top 40 hit at the Billboard Pop Charts. The song "Things I Will Not Miss" was covered by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye during recording sessions for the 1973 album Diana and Marvin. Tony Bennett recorded "Living Together, Growing Together" and "If I Could Go Back" for MGM/Verve. Bacharach reworked "Living Together, Growing Together" for his 1974 album of the same name, rewriting the rather ponderous opening verse as a bridge within the song."Lost Horizon" (sung by Shawn Phillips over the opening and closing credits)
"Share The Joy" (Maria)
"The World Is a Circle" (Catherine, Harry and children)
"Living Together, Growing Together" (To Len and Company)
"I Might Frighten Her Away" (Richard and Catherine)
"The Things I Will Not Miss" (Sally and Maria)
"If I Could Go Back" (Richard)
"Where Knowledge Ends" (Faith Begins)" (Catherine)
"Question Me an Answer" (Harry and children)
"I Come to You" (Richard)
Large parts of the score were deleted after the film's road show release. The dance sections of "Living Together, Growing Together" were cut, and the master negatives lost. "If I Could Go Back", "Where Knowledge Ends (Faith Begins)", and "I Come To You" were cut, but restored for the laserdisc release of the film. All of the songs appear on the soundtrack LP and CD. According to the notes on the laserdisc release, Kellerman and Kennedy had a reprise of "Living Together, Growing Together" that was also lost.
On October 11, 2011, Columbia Classics, the manufacturing-on-demand unit of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, released a fully restored version of the film on DVD in Region 1, which reinstated all of the elements cut after the roadshow release. The DVD also contains supplemental features, including promos featuring producer Ross Hunter as well as the original song demos played and sung by composer Burt Bacharach. Some of these demos contain different Hal David lyrics than the final versions utilized in the film.
On December 11, 2012, Screen Archives Entertainment (Twilight Time) released an exclusive Blu-ray Disc version of the film, with a 5.1 lossless soundtrack and an isolated film score.