Lost in Shangri-La: Escape From a Hidden World, By Mitchell Zuckoff

Meat on the bones of a blockbuster
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

During the Second World War, a flight carrying 24 US army staff on a sightseeing trip crashes into a rainforest.

Survivors are trapped in an environment rife with enemy troops as well as an indigenous population of reputed cannibals. Back at the base, plans for a rescue mission – heroic in scope, uncertain in outcome – kick into gear.

Is this a celluloid adventure from Hollywood's Golden Age featuring the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn resplendent in khaki, or a CGI action flick starring Tommy Lee Jones, Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie? Neither, as it turn out, though this real-life tale, deftly brought to life in Mitchell Zuckoff's highly readable account, has more than enough Tinseltown trademarks to entice potential film producers.

In May 1945, the Gremlin Special – a transport plane whose nickname came from Roald Dahl's 1943 book for Walt Disney, The Gremlins – takes off in what is now Papua, Indonesia, for a recreational flight over a remote valley. Glimpsed from above a year earlier, the valley's beauty and inaccessibility – and the presence of tribal villages cut off from "civilisation" – had inflamed imaginations, and the press christened it Shangri-La after Lost Horizon, the 1937 Frank Capra film based on James Hilton's fictional utopia.

The plane crashes into the jungle – "a botanist's dream and a crash survivor's nightmare" – leaving three survivors: lieutenant John McCollom; Margaret Hastings, a corporal in the Women's Army Corps; and tech-sergeant Kenneth Decker, who – in a twist straight out of a movie script – had recently been refused a date by Hastings. There's some vine-swinging over waterfalls, Tarzan-style, before, while they're sitting in a native garden of sweet potato and wild rhubarb waiting to be rescued, the so-called cannibals arrive ... meanwhile, a rescue squad gathers: maverick paratrooper Captain Earl Walter and his unit of Filipino-American special commandos; and Alexander Cann, a screen actor-turned-jewel-thief-turned-filmmaker who parachutes in to make a documentary. When the tribespeople turn up, the stage is set for a very strange cross-cultural exchange indeed.

Zuckoff draws from diaries, army documents, radio transcripts, film footage and comprehensive interviews to sketch the myriad characters, historical events and tropical terrain fluidly and vividly, while allowing the details of this extraordinary tale to speak for themselves. (In one truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment, a spontaneous haircut provides a trail to the plane's wreckage). Hastings's diary, in particular, is research gold, from setting the scene at the base to capturing the lay of the land ("Everything in the jungle had tentacles ... and I was too busy fighting them to enjoy nature.").

Lost in Shangri-La is an entertaining, enjoyable page-turner, ripe for the IMAX screen.