At first sight, Lost Horizon may be understood as a utopia, a paradise opposed to the war-torn world of 1937. At that time, there had already been quite a number of incidents which would lead up to the Second World War, especially concerning the Japanese attempts to colonize Asia. One of these attempts would be the 1931 invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese army, and the establishment of the puppet state Manchukuo, another would be the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which brought about the beginning of the second Sino-Japanese War. However, I do not consider Lost Horizon as the portrayal of a paradise: in my opinion, the movie perpetuates stereotypes about Asians. This was certainly true in the 1930s, but this effect may still show today for many people still hold the same stereotypes today. They include the idea that Asians are followers, that they belong to an inferior culture, that they have accents, and so on.
The idea that Asians are followers is most evident in the leading role of white people like the High Lama, Father Perrault, and Robert Conway, a little less evident if one looks at the fact that Sondra, a white woman, is the school teacher of the Asian children, and, therefore, a leader, too. However, most leaders are men. We soon find out that Chang, who first appears to be a leader, is, in reality, only a puppet of the High Lama. Except Chang, who is, in a way, a perfect imitation of a white man and a product of Father Perrault, Asians hardly speak or act at all as individuals. This idea of whites leading and Asians following is also apparent in the music played in the background of many scenes: tranquil and monotonous music is used to assert Asian passiveness, whereas loud music is used to emphasize white activeness. All seems to indicate, moreover, that there is a definite need for a white leader in Shangri-La. It seems unimaginable for Father Perrault to make an Asian, even his creation Chang who is the imitation of a white man, a leader. He rather takes immeasurable efforts to lead Conway, a real white, to Shangri-La.
This apparent need for a white leader reinforces the idea of white culture as superior to Asian culture1. First of all, this is a story about white people, Asians are only present in the background as a contrast to the leading white “class.” Moreover, whereas whites speak English, the Asian language sounds like an unintelligible chatter. Whites possess all the power in Shangri-La, and the yellow race is degraded to either servants or children. I especially got the impression that there is a supposed necessity for white leadership when Robert is told that Shangri-La had only been waiting for him. In addition to this, Asian culture is rendered inferior by the fact that all important culture was brought from the outside, in other words, the Asian culture Father Perrault found in Shangri-La was not important enough to preserve. This bringing of culture continues with Conway and his group who play bridge, want to teach geology and bring plumbing to the “poor people” of Shangri-La. In other words, whites are seen as teachers and creators who bring culture to an uncivilized culture. That Asians are considered uncivilized is obvious when George Conway says he wants to go “back to civilization.” This alleged need for whites to take care of the Asians made me think of the idea of the “white man’s burden” which I would basically associate with Native Americans. Another example illustrating the idea of Asian inferiority is the fact that when the two Conways and Maria try to leave Shangri-La with Asian guides, the Asians do not survive, whereas Robert Conway does, and he does not need a guide to get back to Shangri-La either. And last but not least, there were two brief moments that I remember very well: when Conway and his group arrive in Shangri-La, there is a music to be heard that made me think of heaven, in this case a heaven led by whites as we find out later. This implicates that a place can only be like heaven if whites lead. The second point was the remark by Conway to
Chang à la “You do speak English” which can often be found today when people do not expect someone who looks Asian to speak English.
Another stereotype reinforced by Lost Horizon is that all Asians have an accent when speaking English. The Asian children taught in English by Sondra speak with an accent. Chang does not really speak with the accent usually attributed to Asians, but he walks in a funny way, bent forwards, which makes him appear kind of funny. But regarding accents, not only Asians get their share: the Russian woman also speaks with a heavy accent and is depicted as treacherous. I don’t know about the impact of this in the 1930s, but in a Cold War context this may have been well received by an American audience.
There are, however, other things I kept in mind about Lost Horizon that surpass the reinforcement of stereotypes about Asians. The society depicted in Lost Horizon ’s Shagri-La is a white anarchy. Whites are the leaders and only as long as no one wants to leave this world seems to be a paradise. Moreover, identity is expressed in the costume a person wears. Asian clothes show affinity for Shangri-La, the white-dominated Asian “paradise,” and Western clothes show affinity for the world outside Shangri-La. I was also wondering if the overall message of the film could not be the idea that whites manipulate the world in order to make it better. This came to my mind because whites are dominant in Shangri-La but they say it is only for the best of the Asian population.
This whole film reminded me a little bit of Chin and Chan’s concept of racist hate and racist love. Asians, in Lost Horizon are either under control, for example Chang, or they are dangerous, for example the leaders who are supposed to lead the white group out of Shangri-La. In other terms, one could say that Asians are either depicted as tamed, passive, and inferior followers or as bad and dangerous. What does not fit in really, however, is the pilot Perrault had given the order to bring Conway to Shangri-La. Even though he is a “bad” Asian, he is only so because a white man, Father Perrault, had made him bad. So this is something that could speak in the favor of Asians. From another point of view, it is also possible to see the idea of racist love and racist love in the brothers Conway. Robert personifies racist love, and George racist hate.
As for the overall intention behind the film, I am not quite sure. There is the possibility that, at a time a war between Japan and the US was on its way, Americans should be led to believe in their people’s strength to win a war against Asians for the Asians in the film are depicted as inferior. But at the same time it is possible that Asians seeing this film should be led to believe that their people can never win. This is especially plausible because if Asians lead, as for example those who were to lead the white group out of Shangri-La, it ends in a catastrophe: the Asians were responsible for snow breaking loose. This may, during World War Two, also have been seen as a warning that Asians will be punished for their going to war with America. Both of these interpretations, however, imply the idea that Asians can never be Americans and that all Asians are one people, i.e. Asians are homogenized.
There is one more dimension concerning Asians in Lost Horizon, namely the maintenance of anti-miscegenation. In the movie, there are no interracial relationships, or in other words, romantic relationships are between individuals of the same race, i.e. whites. Asians don’t even seem to have relationships or to be attractive to anyone, least of all whites. This is not so today where especially Asian women are portrayed as desirable for white men. But back at the time of the movie, anti-miscegenation was still an issue.
Apart from these two main critiques of Lost Horizon, i.e. the perpetuation of stereotypes about Asians and the issue of maintaining anti-miscegenation, there are two more things I would like to mention: the sexism inherent in the film and a possible counter-reading.
First of all, there is the fact that all leaders are men. The only woman who is kind of a leader in her function as a teacher, Sondra, is only in this position because of Father Perrault’s education. In general, women are either passive, such as all the Asian women who never speak or do anything of importance, or follow men, or just waited for a man to follow. This is true for both Sondra and Maria: Sondra says that she had waited all her life for a man like Robert, and Maria needs George to bring her out of Shangri-La. As far as Gloria, the blonde woman suffering from Tuberculosis, is concerned, she is only there for decoration and as the one who is called “honey” and other names by Barnard.
The last point I want to mention is a possible counter-reading of Lost Horizon, a kind of social commentary. From this point of view, the movie is not at all racist against Asians but rather views the whites in a negative light. First of all, the whole story was initiated by a white mind, Father Perrault. He made the Asian pilot kidnap the small group of white travelers, so the Asian cannot really be blamed for what happens. The fact that George Conway, who sees Asian culture as inferior, is proven wrong in the end could be seen as a validation for Asian (and also Asian American) culture. This is only a weak argument within the limits of the movie, though, for the Asian culture as seen in the movie, is a creation of whites. However, the fact that the Asian culture of Shangri-La is heavily influenced by whites contradicts George Conway’s utterance about going “back to civilization,” which implies, as I have mentioned earlier, that the Asian culture in Shangri-La is not a civilized one. So, along this line of though, what he says is that the Asian culture influenced by whites is not a civilized one, and therefore white culture cannot be civilized either. What does not fit in either, is the fact that, even though white culture was brought to Shangri-La by Father Perrault, this was only possible with the help of Asians who, for example, carried all the items to Shangri-La, who accepted white leadership, etc. Moreover, when we learn that high age can be attributed to the absence of struggle and no lack of anything in life, and that this, furthermore, eliminated the need of police because there is not crime, this could easily be interpreted as a solution to social problems. In addition to that, a comment on imperialism may be found in the movie as well. Father Perrault admires Conway as an empire builder, which may be an acknowledgment on the part of America for imperialism, contrary to its denial. Moreover, the fact that the children in Shangri-La are educated in English lays open the common practice of – the denied – American imperialism, as, for example, to be seen in the Philippines. And last but not least, the question of whether or not the paradise is really a paradise, which may be doubted out of many reasons, such as for example the fact that no one may leave Shangri-La, addresses the question of plausibility of scenarios. Maybe the fact that, for example, Maria’s story turns out to be a lie, can be considered a warning about how easily one can be led to believe in what they are told. This warning is something the American public should have listened to when many people believed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two to be rightful because they believed in the military necessity as voiced by the military. The closing remarks of the movie, “I believe it because I want to believe it. [.] Everyone has a Shangri-La.” states this maybe best of all.
As I have shown, Lost Horizon perpetuates stereotypes about Asians and addresses the racist love/racist hate model of Chin and Chan. It moreover reinforces anti-miscegenation in regard to Asians, but also other non-white minorities. Apart from these two critiques concerning Asians, or more broadly speaking ethnic minorities, there is also an inherent sexism in the film. And finally, the movie allows for a counter-reading, a critique of white culture.
1 In this short essay I do not want to address the question of what the term “culture” actually means. In other words, I leave it open here whether “culture” should be meant to signify a way of life, items used in everyday life, language, food, religion, etc.