The Social Philosophy Aspects of Capra & Riskin’s Lost Horizon

Utopia is an old idea. From Plato’s Republic to Moore’s Utopia, from the Book of Revelation to Candide, authors and philosophers have long speculated on what the perfect human society might look like. Shangri La, created by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon, and further developed by Robert Riskin in his screenplay for the film of the same name, is a Utopia, and perhaps the one with which modern audiences are most familiar.

The two principal utopias of the 20th Century were Shangri La and Galt’s Gulch from Atlas Shrugged. Interestingly, while the former was originally created by an Englishman, it was brought to the screen by a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States, and Galt’s Gulch was created outright by another Russian Jew, Ayn Rand. Both went to Hollywood as young people and took up screenwriting, both attained great fame. Riskin, however, came with his family, and his work always reflected a strong sense of family loyalty. Rand came alone, and her work reflects a great sense of self-reliance. Also, the Riskins fled the Tsarists, while Rand fled the Leninists. It’s not surprising, though, that two people who belonged to a persecuted minority and fled a politically unstable country should be interested in what Utopia might look like.

There are many, many other 20th-Century Utopias. The Wikipedia entry has a good list, including some by two of my favorite authors L. Neil Smith and Robert Heinlein, as well as Star Trek, and works by SF Powerhouses Ursula LeGuin (haven’t read her, so can’t say whether she’s a favorite) and H.G. Wells (a giant, but a socialist giant; I doubt we’ll dine together often in Heaven, but I could be wrong.) None of these works has influenced public thought and even public policy as much as Lost Horizon and Atlas Shrugged, except perhaps Star Trek. I discount my beloved Trek for this discussion, however, because Roddenberry didn’t set out to create a Utopia with the Federation; he just started injecting Utopian ideals into the series as he got older, and it resulted in a weakened fictional universe.

Further, I’m interested in comparing and contrasting the Utopia of Lost Horizon, especially as presented by Capra and Riskin, with Ayn Rand’s vision because the work of these two great filmmakers has been labeled as politically liberal and even socialist, and I disagree. While Riskin was documented to be an FDR Democrat, and all of Capra’s most famous films had their heroes helping the less fortunate, it’s a disservice to the subtlety and sophistication of the storytellers to suggest that their work was merely left-wing propaganda. Indeed, the film of theirs which might be labeled the most blatantly socialist, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, was considered by no less a conservative icon than President Ronald Reagan to display core American values, and was based on a short story by an anti-FDR Republican. (And yes, Reagan’s statements about the film were made during his Presidential years, not his earlier, pro-labor days.)

And of course, there’s no hint of socialism in Galt’s Gulch. Rand, who was born into a middle-class Russian family whose business and property were seized by the Communist state, abhorred all socialist and communist ideals. I’ve been told by a very intelligent student of philosophy that Rand is “un-subtle.” I plead nolo contendere on her behalf. (Realizing that she would probably hunt me down with a gun, were she alive, for daring to speak for her.) There is little, if any, room for interpretation in her work. She never suggests. She shows and she tells. No liberal Democrat could find any common ground with her, except perhaps in the area of religion. Even there, it would be difficult. Liberal Democrats who are atheists still accept a lot of the philosophy of Jesus (whether they admit it or not), while Rand categorically denied it and dismissed it as immoral. Liberals and conservatives both, however, can find in Capra and Riskin’s films elements of their own philosophies.

Let me present a capsule description of each Utopia. Nestled in the mountains of Tibet, the lamasery of Shangri La is built on land no man claims in the Valley of the Blue Moon, where, sheltered from wind and snow, natives and lamas enjoy a temperate climate. Free of stress and rich because the Valley has a plentiful supply of gold, the inhabitants live hundreds of years. There’s a supernatural aspect to the anti-aging process: if someone of advanced age leaves the Valley, he immediately reverts to his real age and quickly dies. The people of the Valley are ruled benevolently by the High Lama, a Belgian priest who has melded Buddhism and his own Christian faith to create a practice of moderation in all things–even moderation itself–ruled by one simple law: “Be kind.” Disputes are settled by parties voluntarily attempting to each be more considerate than their opponent. The natives accept any traveler who stumbles upon their valley, and, at least once, have identified an outsider who is of such worth that they kidnap him and bring him to live among them. Otherwise, they want nothing to do with the outside world.

Okay, that’s one. Now…

Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, Galt’s Gulch is a town built on property privately owned by U.S. citizen Midas Mulligan, which he has sold or leased to friends he deems worthy. Sheltered by a revolutionary invisibility screen designed by John Galt, the engineer for whom the town is named, the people of the town are free to pursue their favorite creative endeavors, knowing they will never be taxed or forced to give the fruits of their mind to others. The valley here is also rich in gold, because all the residents are genius creators whose works are worth a great deal of money. In addition, resident Ragnar Danneskjold makes frequent forays into the outside world to raid ships carrying gold between oppressive people’s states, seizing from governments that amounts he calculates have been stolen from his countrymen in taxes. There is no government. Disputes are settled by law, based on property rights which do not recognize imminent domain, nor the right of any person to claim the wealth of another based on need. The ruling philosophy is “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” You’ll note that’s almost an inverse Golden Rule. I postulate that, if you turn the Golden Rule around, it still says the same thing. Residents of Galt’s Gulch have essentially no use for the outside world, and would accept no traveler who stumbled upon them; but they do regularly invite outsiders to join them, once the outsider has displayed his fitness to be one of them.

Two quite different places, on the surface. One is kind, gentle and welcoming, protected from the outside world by accident. The other is proud, even arrogant, and something of an exclusive, gated community. One is deeply mystical and faith-based, the other unashamedly atheist. One believes in moderation and acceptance of flaws, the other believes in absolute reason, and that one must be held accountable for every trespass.

And yet…

Both John Galt, the charismatic spokesman for the men of the mind, and Father Perrault, the leader of Shangri La, have a vision of the destruction of the outside world, the fall of civilization. Perrault’s is mystical, Galt’s is pure logic. Perrault believes that greed and lust for murder will bring about the apocalypse, and Galt believes that ignorance and the philosophy of self-sacrifice will. Perrault mourns the coming cataclysm, Galt has actively labored to make it come faster. In the end, both men are doing the same thing about fall of civilization: holing up and weathering it, knowing that, someday, they’ll be able to offer the world a better way. Perrault will share with them the treasures of the past, and Galt will sell them the treasures of his mind, and the minds of his friends. Both are profoundly moral men who think humanity can and should succeed. Both are willing to let the world go to hell, because they know it’s going to insist on doing so anyway.

Further, both believe in non-violence. Perrault would never lift a finger to harm another person, and Galt believes that initiating the use of force is one of the two worst sins a man can commit, the other being self-sacrifice. And while Galt would kill a man who threatened him without blinking and Perrault wouldn’t, Perrault would kidnap and hold a man against his will, presuming to know better than the man himself what was best for him, something Galt would never do.

I don’t think it would be fair to cast these two visions as opposites. They have their differences, and certainly Galt’s Gulch will appeal to people of only one political stripe, where Shangri La is less partisan. Ultimately, they both show people of great ability going underground to weather the storm.

Lost Horizon might be labeled socialist for a couple of reasons. First, in the film, the natives of the Valley do not believe in money. In the book, no real mention is made of trade, except that they use their gold to buy what they need from the outside. In the film, Chang, the High Lama’s number two man, tells outsider Bob Conway, “Of course we have no money as you know it. We do not buy or sell or seek personal fortunes because, well, because there is no uncertain future here for which to accumulate it.” This suggests that the only reason a man would accumulate wealth is because he needed it, suggesting that just wanting wealth is unnatural, a profoundly socialist argument.

Why would Riskin insert such a line? I think because he was very aware that he’d come from poverty to wealth in a very short span of years, and, while he was doing it, a lot of people were suffering from the ravages of the Great Depression. He probably didn’t want to give away his wealth, and I’d be surprised if he really believed he didn’t deserve it. Yet it troubled him greatly that wealth seemed inaccessible to so many. I would suggest that his idea of a Utopia would be a place where people just didn’t have to worry about money, and yet you could have any treasure you wanted. Certainly, a successful genius like Riskin would then have to feel less guilty about his success.

The other passage, which exists in both film and book, which might be argued to establish a socialist leaning in Shangi La is in the High Lama’s speech. In the book, Father Perrault describes the coming storm succinctly, saying he “foresaw a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, would rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing would be in danger, every book and picture and harmony, every treasure garnered through two millenniums, the small, the delicate, the defenseless–all would be lost like the lost books of Livy, or wrecked as the English wrecked the Summer Palace in Pekin.”

Riskin gave the description more punch and imagery:

It came to me in a vision, long, long, ago. I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in the vulgar passions and the will to destroy. I saw their machine power multiply until a single weaponed man might match a whole army. I foresaw a time when man, exulting in the technique of murder, would rage so hotly over the world that every book, every treasure, would be doomed to destruction. This vision was so vivid and so moving that I determined to gather together all the things of beauty and culture that I could and preserve them here against the doom toward which the world is rushing.

Look at the world today! Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is, what blindness, what unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. The time must come, my friend, when this orgy will spend itself, when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword.

Against that time is why I avoided death and am here, and why you were brought here. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here. For here we shall be with their books and their music and a way of life based on one simple rule: Be Kind.

Both versions end with the same sentence: “…when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.”

While there’s nothing in that speech which suggests redistribution of wealth, planned economies or progressive taxation, there is imagery which seems anti-gun, surely, and there is a decrying of greed. The final line makes a promise which many would take to be anti-capitalist, that being that the meek shall inherit the earth. If you assume the meek to be those who don’t get ahead in life, those who don’t know how to compete, those who are always down on their luck, then, yes, that’s promising the world to a lot of people who have done nothing to earn that ownership. To accept that as a moral outcome, you have to be able to accept that it’s right to give people something just because they deserve to have it and they need it, not because they’ve paid for it. That is a socialist morality.

But who are the meek? Webster’s gives three definitions: “enduring injury with patience and without resentment,” “deficient in spirit and courage,” and “not violent or strong.” It also notes that the word is of Scandinavian origin, and is akin to an Old Norse word meaning “gentle.” Well, the first definition suggests strength to me. I think of a parent of teenagers, putting up with his kid’s sarcasm and rebellious attitude without lashing out and becoming combative, and without taking their hostility personally. That takes a lot of strength, if you ask this parent of teenagers. It takes the same strength to deal with people who are rude and abusive, but not your social or intellectual equals, without losing your cool. The second definition is insulting, and I dismiss it as being the result of the macho ethic. Spirit and courage are not displayed only by kicking ass. Indeed, bullies are usually the most cowardly creatures you’ll find. As to the third, are we supposed to find non-violence negative? Apparently we are, since the definition infers that the only reason the meek are not violent is that they’re not strong enough to be so. I think the negative definitions of this word are just corruptions of the original meaning, “gentle,” brought about by people who lack strength, courage and patience.

If you’re going to expand the definition of meek, I would expand it in a direction which does not include weakness, cowardice or incompetence. I would say that the meek are those who just want to be left alone. They’re too proud to argue or fight, see little point in losing their tempers at people who are just stupid, and they don’t want to take anything that doesn’t belong to them. That’s what’s been characterized as the hallmark of strength by a lot of people in our culture: the willingness and ability to take what isn’t ours, what we don’t deserve. The desire to control others and their property.

That’s a strength that James Hilton, Robert Riskin, Ayn Rand could likely all do without. And while Rand didn’t believe in meekness as it’s classically portrayed, I think it’s fair to say that her characters very much wanted to be left alone, spared the machinations of others and the pleas of others for undeserved charity.

If the strong, meaning those who insist on taking what’s not theirs or what they haven’t earned, do devour each other, then all that’s left will be the people who minded their own business. Some of those “meek” may have simply been cowards, but many will be those who simply wanted to keep what was theirs and be left alone. To me, that means there’s room in the Utopia Riskin envisions for liberal and conservative alike. The only people there’s not room for are conquerors, bullies and thieves. Galt’s Gulch wouldn’t tolerate them either.

Socialist storytellers, who comprise, sadly, most of Hollywood’s creators, have a penchant for making their villains industrialists. Lost Horizon falls outside that mold, for it has no villains. Yes, Conway’s younger brother is a hothead who winds up getting a lot of people killed (reminds me–I plan to write next week about Enjolras in Les Miserables), but all he really wants is his freedom. The only industrialist we see is Chalmers Bryant, A.K.A. “Barney,” who displays some greed, but it’s not a greed that’s condemned. It’s portrayed as understandable that, coming from the outside world, he’d want to hoard gold. It’s also shown that, when he finds productive work to do, he forgets about the gold. Ayn Rand might even have approved, for her heroes wanted to work and create more than they wanted to just get money.

Going beyond this script, we see that while Riskin’s industrialist villains are predators, yes, but they’re dishonest and unhappy. They want to control others. Anthony Kirby in You Can’t Take it With You wants to build an empire, but changes his mind when he sees what nice people he’d be hurting. He doesn’t stop being an industrialist. He just realizes that he forgot to be a nice guy for a while. (If you’ve never seen this film, see it. Arguably, it contains a mini-Utopia in the form of the Vanderhoff home.) D.H. Norton in Meet John Doe (also played by the wonderful Edward Arnold) doesn’t do such a turnaround, at least not in the final version of the script, but he is forced to realize that he can’t always get what he wants by trampling on the little guy, and he’s portrayed as a desperately unlikable and unhappy man as a result of a personality disorder, not just because he’s rich. Indeed, Riskin created a very positive image of a rich financier, if not an industrialist, in the character of Tom Dickson in American Madness. A good boss and loving husband, Tom goes out of his way to help people, or at least avoid hurting them, and yet he’s still successful in business.

Riskin, a rich man himself, did not see wealth or the ability to amass it as inherently evil, nor did he play the easy socialist game of making wealth equal villainy in his scripts. His work is subtle and of broad scope, his characters complex and real, and his stab at creating Utopia is too though-provoking to be dismissed as political propaganda for one side or the other.

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