Many people would say this movie is not science fiction but I think it has enough elements of science fiction to count. You have a mysterious utopian hidden society, people living for hundreds of years, and a group storing humanities knowledge so that it can rebuild civilization after it self destructs. Sounds like science fiction to me.
The story centers around writer, soldier, and diplomat Robert Conway who is has one last mission to complete, the evacuation of the last few westerners from a Chinese village that is about to be over run by revolutionaries. Once that is accomplished he will return to England to become the next Foreign Minister. What he and the other westerners don't know is they are all about kidnapped and taken to mysterious mountain community called Shangri-La.
Once in Shangri-La, the survivors soon come to love their new community and lose all interest in going back to their own lives except Robert Conway's younger brother George who wants nothing more than to get back to his old life. Soon Robert Conway learns Shangri-La's secrets, people in Shangri-La live for hundreds of years and that Shangri-La's propose is to save all the art and literature that it can to help rebuild civilization when it collapses.
I will leave the rest of the story for you to see for yourself.
When you think about the time period one can see why people would be pessimistic about the future. The book was written in 1933 and the movie was released in 1937. By the time the movie came out, Japan had already invaded Manchuria, Italy had invaded Ethiopia, and Hitler was in power in Germany. To Europeans, Chinese, and many people Africa it might have looked like the end of the world was around the corner. The sad truth is for millions of people it really was right around the corner but not for the planet as a whole, thank goodness. It is not hard to see the idea of a peaceful, beautiful, last bastion of learning and culture as a wonderful dream.
In my youth I thought that Shangri-La sounded wonderful. I wanted to go and live in Shangri-La and spend my days learning and living in a beautiful peaceful valley removed for the cares of the world. Today, I can not help but feel that it is the act of a coward. If Robert Conway is such a great diplomat and leader shouldn't he stay in the world and help save the world instead of giving up and hiding? Isn't it also a bit elitist to hide while the world self destructs only to come out after all is ashes to take over and "lead" the survivors in creating a new and better world in your image? Doesn't that sound like something a James Bond villain would do?
I really love this movie and it is a true classic. I may not think that hiding from the world in Shangri-La is a good solution for the worlds problems, but I would love to retire there. The fantasy of Shangri-La has become embedded in modern culture since the book was published in 1933 to this very day.
The 1973 remake.
The early 1970s was one yet another period of time when people seemed to be ready to give up on humanity. The fantasy of Shangri-La must have seemed attractive enough to do a remake. Of course Hollywood had to add a twist to the remake, they made it into a musical! The cast was actually full of great actors but the movie was a disaster. It just didn't work and was a flop. You can find it on YouTube but it is chopped into 10 minute segments. I have included the movie's trailer so you can see just how awkward it is for yourself. Tibetan monks singing 1970s Burt Baccarat songs, what could go wrong?