In India, we had a graphic lesson on how the Himalayas had been thrust onto the landscape by tectonic collision, the entire subcontinent of India broke away from Africa and slammed into the underside of Asia. Our first trip into the mountains began with a flight to Kathmandu in Nepal, where there was a full insurrection in progress between Maoists and Royalists. We could not stay for the fireworks. Flying over Mount Everest bound for Bhutan, scenes of Shangri-La floated in our minds. There are two myths that owe their existence to the Himalaya mountains. The first is found in stories of the Abominable Snowman, or Yeti. Like other shadowy monsters of the wild, there have been frequent sightings but little reliable evidence. The Hollywood-style movies on this subject are designed more to be scary than as explorations of history and culture. They can be found in Google. The mythology of Shangri-La has deep roots in Himalayan culture, but it is best known in the West as the invention of novelist James Hilton, who published Lost Horizon in 1933.
Lost Horizon (1937)
Directed by Frank Capra, and based on the James Hilton novel, the film begins in China, 1935. Ambassador Robert Conway (Ronald Coleman) is helping to evacuate British citizens ahead of an expected massacre. He is joined by three other men and an American woman on the last plane out of Baskul. Just when it seems they are safely on their way to Shanghai, they discover they are being hijacked into the Himalayas. The plane crashes in the mountains and the Chinese pilot is killed. A map found on the corpse reveals that the plane had flown beyond the reaches of civilization, somewhere in Tibet. Very soon, the survivors are found by a rescue party and led to Shangri-La and its idyllic “lamasery” (the Tibetan equivalent of monastery). The climate is warm and comfortable. An older man welcomes them and explains some of the history of this place, which was founded by a Belgian monk two centuries earlier. Conway is taken to meet the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), who turns out to be the Belgian monk. The lama suggests somewhat mysteriously that Conway has been lured to this place because he is the one to guide Shangri-La into the future after the two-hundred-year-old lama dies. Living in Shangri-La can more than double human life expectancy. Conway asks the lama what religion is practiced in this lamasery and the answer he gets is “moderation.”
Group paranoia begins to nurture the suspicion that this is all a hoax. Some things just don’t add up. How could that piano have been carried across the forbidding mountains? Do people really grow rapidly old and die once they leave Shangri-La? Conway is persuaded to abandon Shangri-La and make the almost impossible journey back to civilization. There are fatalities along the way. Conway continues his snowy trek alone. A final scene suggests that he makes it. It ends at the St. George Club in London with a group of modern aristocrats sitting over drinks and cigars toasting the idealistic dream of Robert Conway.
The trailer for this black-and-white film emphasizes all the wrong things for the purposes of this website. It reflects a misguided attempt to win an audience for this film, which was struggling at the box office. There was a later attempt to turn this material into a movie musical. It was even more disastrous. Hollywood has yet to make an ideal Shangri-La movie.
Black Narcissus (1946)
Related to the Shangri-La tradition, this British film is set on the southern edges of the Himalayas near Darjeeling, on a little thumb of northeast India jutting between Nepal and Bhutan. Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, it’s about a group of Anglican nuns who take possession of a former sultan’s harem where they will start a school and hospital. It is a beautiful spot set on a promontory overlooking high peaks and deep valleys. The nuns land at Calcutta, directly south of Darjeeling, and travel a considerable distance to their new mountain home. The color photography is spectacular, even today. The very young Mother Superior (Deborah Kerr) faces many challenges in managing her small sisterhood, as well as local officials, British occupiers, and the indigenous people they are there to serve. There are sexual tensions running under the surface, involving Kerr’s memories of an earlier failed romance and the ungovernable passions of one of the other nuns. There is a sultry young Indian girl (Jean Simmons!) who is brought to the nunnery because she is too full of libidinal energies. It all comes to a boil toward the end.
No trailer available.
Himalaya: The Making of a Leader (1999) – Nepal
Set in the uplands of Nepal, this narrative film opens with a large caravan of yaks returning to its village with the body of its young leader. He leaves a young wife and son, and a grieving father and mother. The extent to which these people look like American Indians is startling. The father wants to lead the salt caravan in place of his son but the villagers think he is old and foolish and unhinged by grief. A younger man, second in command of the caravan, takes it as his right to be the leader. The rivalry between the younger and older candidates is intense but always civil and essentially compassionate. The younger man sets off early with the large part of the caravan. The older man follows with his small train four days later. Eventually, the two caravans meet and join forces. The trek over snow-covered mountains is arduous but ultimately successful. This is a beautiful movie.
Valley of Flowers (2006)
An Indian film company and an international cast give this story its multicultural flavor. It is set in the northern tip of India where it joins the Himalayas. A group of bandits lives free in the foothills while robbing travelers on the Silk Road. When a beautiful woman turns up and bonds with the handsome leader of the group, the film becomes a tale of mystical lovers. Mysterious powers are involved. A crisis comes when the two steal an elixir of life and consume it. The young woman appears to have only pretended to drink while her partner imbibed. Shortly, she dies violently and her immortal lover is forced to wander eternity alone. He walks across the decades for 200 years, arriving in modern Tokyo. There he takes on the identity of a controversial doctor practicing legalized euthanasia. The young woman is also in Tokyo, working as a cabaret singer, having passed through several levels of karma. Buddhist philosophy, themes of reincarnation, and magic realism conspire to make a sad but romantic ending. The Wikipedia entry says the film leaves spiritual loose ends so that the audience may reach its own conclusions.
On our 2011 trip to Tibet, we found mostly sadness. This was a place that had lost its heart despite intense interest and support from the West. The Chinese had taken full control of the capital at Lhasa. Potola Palace was turned into a tourist attraction. Buddhist leadership had been decimated. There were two major movies made in 1997 about the flight of the Dalai Lama from Lhasa to Dharmsala in India. They were Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. The latter was made by Martin Scorsese and it stands as the definitive movie on the crisis in Tibet. Two later documentaries, Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion (2003) and Tibetan Refugee (2004) provide updates.
Kundun (1997) – Scorsese
A richly textured account of the life of the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, and his exile from his country. It opens in the 1930s with a search for the new Dalai Lama (manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion), after the death of the old one. They find a little boy who shows significant signs of being the new Kundun. Two years later, in 1939, the boy is maybe four or five and is taken by caravan to Lhasa. He receives training and is placed on the throne, though he must come of age before being fully invested. Five years pass and the boy’s idyllic life is disrupted by the coming of the Chinese to make claims on Tibet. Five more years go by; it is 1949 and the young Dalai Lama must apply his wisdom to serious threats to his nation. Maoist forces have led a “Peoples Liberation of Tibet.” They picture the Kundun as an imperialist leader. On November 17, 1950, there is an enthronement ceremony officially installing the Kundun as the spiritual leader of Tibet. He calls upon other nations to support Tibet in its time of tribulation. The Chinese occupation becomes a political reality in 1951, with the Maoist Communist government taking possession of Tibet. The Kundun must move his administration to a monastery far from Lhasa. He is presented with a Seventeen Point Agreement and pressured to sign it. He will not. No countries, not even the United Nations, will help Tibet. The Dalai Lama goes to Peking, but Mao will only agree to welcome Tibet back to the fold of the Motherland. Mao tells the Kundun that religion is poison: “The opiate of the people.” There is nothing the Dalai Lama can do.
The Chinese invasion becomes more violent in its attempts to root out the old ways. Tibetan commitment to nonviolence is not working. There is a powerful scene of masses of red-robed corpses of monks. The Chinese maintain that they are trying to liberate Tibet from the past. The Dalai Lama says, “Only Buddha can set us free.” His advisors think the only option is for the Dalai Lama to flee to India, where sanctuary has been arranged. The Chinese are determined to prevent his escape, but he steals away by night in an animal-skin boat, then endures a long trek over the mountains to the Indian border. He reflects on the truths of Buddhism as he makes his journey. The Chinese are in pursuit. It is 1959. Shots of the destruction of a sand mandala are mixed with scenes of the exodus. A guard at the border asks if this is the Lord Buddha. He says he is a reflection, intimating that every person is a Buddha. A print legend says that the Dalai Lama has not yet returned to Tibet, but hopes one day to make the journey. Video Movie Guide 2002 said it was like “watching paint dry.” For me, this was a deeply satisfying and superbly textured film.
From the Caravan Journals: February 2005. Landing in Paro, at Bhutan’s only international airport, we visited the monastery where Little Buddha (see Movies about Buddhist India) had been filmed and then moved on to the capital city of Thimphu (say Tim-poo). Inquiries around town produced the suggestion of only one Bhutanese movie, Travellers (sic) and Magicians (2004). Further into the mountains, we came to a fortress–monastery where an annual cultural festival was in progress. There was a costumed enactment of a Bhutanese epic about an old war with Tibet in progress. It held echoes of Homer and the Ramayana, and clearly it was an identity-maker for this small nation. Later, there were masked dances and some trickster comedy. Someday, there will be an epic movie based on Bhutanese legend.
Travellers and Magicians (2004) – Bhutan
While it features beautifully photographed scenes of Bhutan, this film is somewhat disjointed and difficult to follow. A Westernized young man named Dondup wants desperately to get out of his village and travel to America where he has connections. He misses the bus to Thimpu and has to hitch rides along with a few other travelers, including a Buddhist monk, an old man who sells apples, and a father and daughter on their way to the Tesche Festival to sell rice paper. During long delays in the trip, the monk tells a story of a young man whose horse runs away with him and loses him in a remote mountainous area. He comes upon the house of an old man and his beautiful wife. The story proceeds in fragments but inevitably the young man and the wife fall in love and she becomes pregnant. They poison the old man and the young man runs off into the woods in panic. The woman chases after him and drowns in a mountain stream. Meanwhile, Dondup has developed a crush on the daughter of the rice paper maker. As the film ends, he is having doubts about leaving Bhutan. The film was written and directed by a Buddhist lama in Bhutan.
Himalaya Addendum: The Stars Caravan (2000) – Kyrgyzstan
This is a semi-documentary film from Kyrgyzstan, a country of mountainous grandeur, Islamic religion, and nomadic culture. Lying along the old Silk Road, it nestles above Afghanistan just on the north side of Tajikistan in the Tian Shan mountains, an extension of the Himalayas. Tashkent and Samarkand lie off along the road to the west. It borders China on the east. At the time of filming, it had recently survived the break-up of the Soviet Union and was tentatively exploring the ways of democracy. One marker of these changes is the life of the central figure in the film, a projectionist, who once made his living under the Soviets by carrying movies and projection equipment to the camps of the nomads. The movies were generally propaganda or instructional. Now that democracy has come, he is showing American action films and epics of the Kyrgyzstan hero, Manas. He is trying to make it in the new market economy. More compact videos are becoming popular as well, and there is competition from rock music and television. There are similarities to Bye Bye Brazil (1980)* in the struggle of the traveling showman to keep pace with the times, and to touch the hearts and imaginations of a people whose roots reach to ancient origins.
No trailer available.
*See Movies About Modern South America: Brazil