As a gay man I’ve held a long fascination and attachment to James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon (first published in 1933), and I want to examine its deeper meaning for me (and for us as gay people), apart from any literary merit it may possess. The book has enjoyed huge popularity over the years, boosted by major film adaptations, but, as far as I know, no one has looked at it in this way until now.
Frank Capra’s pre-war (1937) film version starring Ronald Colman as the hero Conway had some of its pacifist dialogue censored, as he and his fellow airborne passengers are kidnapped during an uprising in Afghanistan and taken to a fabled region of healing, forgotten wisdom and peace, deep in Tibet.
The inhabitants of Shangri-La are super-fit and do not age from the day of their arrival, though they will instantly revert to their real age if they leave the sacred valley. In a world soon to be plunged into savage conflict, this is a vision of high civilisation and a place where all that is best in human culture is preserved for future generations. Implicit in this, I feel, is the firm footprint of gay culture too.
I first read Lost Horizon at a time of unemployment, and when still coming to terms with my sexuality, seated in the grand British Museum Reading Room, where Hilton himself had researched and toiled over his novel. One passage particularly lifted me in which the High Lama tells Conway of a Chinese artist who spent years carving a cherry stone as a gift for a prince. The beauty of the stone was not apparent, until the prince was told by the artist to build a wall with a window in it, so as to see its beauty “in the glory of the dawn”.
Conway realises that
“the serene purpose of Shangri-La could embrace an infinitude of odd and apparently trivial employments”,
which each in their own way contributed to the good of all. I also realised my own gay life was like that cherry stone, and didn’t need formal work to dignify it.
Father Perrault, the two hundred year old High Lama, has chosen Conway to carry on his own work in the valley of the Blue Moon, and reminds him of how he will be able to read, and conduct research, without the constraints of time there. This is exactly how I feel now in early retirement, the potent drug of having time for reading and reflection, and the longevity of being unstressed.
The set design of the utopian lamesery in Capra’s film owed much to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Hilton himself confessed it had redefined his image of what the place should look like. To our imagination Shangri-La could be a symbol of the pre-AIDS gay movement, as joyful and innocent as the lotus pool stretched before it. The virus, and the illness it represents, can have no place there in that snow-bound pocket of healing tranquillity.
Is gay romance consigned to the past too, like a lost vision? Looking at gay dating sites, there may seem no place for anything but pared-down, quick sexual encounters. Look deeper, however, and there’s still a lot of guys seeking everything from white knights to dark angels, exciting, meaningful companionship, or what used to be called a dream lover. We still seek the kind of relationship the fifties’ Vic Damone song depicted with the lyric: “For anywhere you are/ Is Shangri-La”.
Lost Horizon to me is like a parable of gay life. While the storm of AIDS and homophobia has raged about us, our escape has been to a hidden sanctuary and a freedom to come.
Being gay has always felt to me like being kidnapped by benign forces for some greater purpose, being chosen to partake of a better, fuller life.
By John Hartley.
(c) Copyright May, 2011. All Rights Reserved.