When we were kids, our grandparents used to take us to Radio City Music Hall for the movie and Christmas Pageant every year. The year I was 12, the movie was a remake of Lost Horizon--my most graphic memory from that night is my horror when the woman suddenly aged after leaving Shangri-La. As it turns out, that version of the movie is pretty dreadful, while Frank Capra's 1937 original is widely considered to be a classic. At any rate, I liked the film enough to read the book and also Hilton's other classic, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and I loved them both. Recently, our library got a restored edition of the Capra film and we enjoyed it thoroughly. So I went back & reread the books.
I assume most folks know at least the rough outlines of the stories. In Lost Horizon, Hugh Conway, a British diplomat, is skyjacked and he & his traveling companions end up in the Himalayas. Eventually they are lead to the hidden Valley of the Blue Moon and the city of Shangri-La, where folks do not age and the powers that be are collecting all of the world's knowledge and greatest artworks, so that it will be safe from the turbulent political storms of the outside world. Eventually, the high lama reveals to the diplomat that he has been chosen to take over leadership of Shangri-La and after an abortive attempt to leave (at the insistence of one of his fellow travelers), Conway returns to assume his destined place in Shangri-La.
Good-bye, Mr. Chips, on the other hand, is about an eccentric but lovable British schoolmaster, Arthur Chipping (Mr. Chips). Seemingly destined to be a bachelor for life, he meets and marries a young woman who loosens him up quite a bit, before dying in childbirth. Chips is left alone, except that is for the succeeding generations of boys who pass through Brookfield School. After decades at the school, he retires, telling the assembled alumni, "I have thousands of faces in my mind. ... I remember you as you are. That's the point. In my mind you never grow old at all", only to be called back during WWI, at which point he becomes acting headmaster. One of his duties is to read the list of the school's war dead; for everyone else they are just names, but for Chips, each name has a face attached. After the War he reretires, after 42 years teaching Roman History and Latin at Brookfield.
On the surface, these two stories couldn't be more different, but reading them now I realize how similar they actually are. Shangri-La is an oasis of civilzation in a world that was after all between two World Wars. It is a place where the great achievements of our culture will be preserved, even if war consumes the rest of the World, which for much of this Century seemed like a possibility. Mr. Chips, meanwhile, is the living embodiment of institutional memory. The classes of boys, the teachers and headmasters, even the subjects and teaching methods, come and go, but Chips has remained throughout. He "still had those ideas of dignity and generosity that a frantic world was forgetting." He embodies the pre-War world and its values. In his book Mr. Bligh's Bad Language, Greg Dening says that: "Institutions require memory. A memory creates precedent and order." In the very midst of an epoch that was witnessing an unfettered attack on all of the West's institutions and values, Hilton created Shangri-La and Mr. Chips; both represent the conservative ideal--providing a bridge of memory to all that is beautiful and good and decent in our past, lest, in our zeal to create a perfect world, we forget the qualities and accomplishments which bequeathed us the pretty good world in which we live.
These books are unabashedly sentimental and I'm sure some would even find them mawkish. But I love them and I appreciate the subtley non-political way in which they make the most important of political points: even as we move forward we must always preserve those things and ideas of value in our past.
Mr. Chips GRADE: A+
Lost Horizon GRADE: A