Lost in Shangri-La: Escape From a Hidden World, By Mitchell Zuckoff
Meat on the bones of a blockbuster
Sunday 01 May 2011
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.
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby bought for just £10 at car boot sale could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Katie Hopkins and The Sun editor are reported to police for incitement to racial hatred following migrant boat column
- 3 Giorgio Armani criticises the way some gay men dress saying 'a man has to be a man'
- 4 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
- 5 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: George Lucas admits he hasn't seen The Force Awakens trailer
Star Wars: Rogue One trailer: Watch the teaser for the Jedi-less Death Star heist film
Avengers: Age of Ultron: 'After credits' scene leaks online
Kevin Spacey's successor at The Old Vic promises a more low-key approach
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate