Seven Years in Tibet

movie review by Mark Leeper

Only in the casting does Seven Years in Tibet reveal itself as a very Western production.
While the basic plot is very reminiscent of Shogun--each story is about a European who
finds himself in an exotic and incomprehensible Asian land, eventually becoming the confidante
of the ruler and a pawn in politics of momentous events--the setting is endlessly fascinating and
director Jean-Jacques Annaud creates an entire world of the past caught in the
wheels of changing time.
Rating: +2 (-4 to +4), 7 (0 to 10)


For millennia Tibet has been protected from intrusion by the tallest guards in the world, the Himalayan Mountains. There in the 7th Century A.D. a culture all but unremembered first mixed with Chinese culture. Until relatively recent history it was a culture that was so isolated that it could go its own way and not be very much influenced by any other culture in the world. Seven Years in Tibettells the true story of two Austrian climbers who happened to be in Tibet during its years of fastest change, probably the only Europeans in the country at the time.

In Austria of 1939 lives Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt), a world-renowned Olympic athlete, a member of the Nazi Party as a matter of style, and a totally selfish boy-man. He abandons his pregnant wife--who is nearly due to give birth--over her objection and he goes on a four-month climbing expedition in the Himalayas. His first shock is to discover that the expedition will be led by an awkward-looking climber, Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis).

Harrer determines to undermine the ungainly man's authority and to make himself the star of the expedition for the press. His little battle only gets him into trouble, first of the sides of the mountain to be climbed, then when war breaks out in Europe the troop of climbers are captured by the British in India and imprisoned in a POW camp. Harrer fights a two-front war against the British imprisoning him and against Aufschnaiter's authority. Eventually Harrer and Aufschnaiter escape from the camp, lead the British a chase through India, and flee across the border into Tibet, a country officially closed to foreigners. The two lie their way into the capital city of Lhasa, a beautiful mountainside city forbidden to any non-Tibetans. After some time there dealing with the bureaucracy of monks, Harrer is given counsel with the Dalai Lama. The great lama, still a young boy, finds he likes the brash German. Harrer becomes a friend, confidant, and teacher to the boy. The warm relationship between the two forms the core of the film. But their relationship is cut off when the country is virtually stolen by invading Chinese Communist troops.

There has been discussion on whether this was a good role for Brad Pitt or not. As the supercilious Heinrich who finds his humanity by loving Tibet, Pitt was fairly believable. I had the feeling that if I had never seen him before I would not have thought twice about whether this part was right for him. In fact associations with previous films were about the only thing that got in the way of the credibility of the story. We have people like Victor Wong of The Joy Luck Club and Big Trouble in Little China; Mako of Conan the Barbarian; and B. D. Wong, whom we saw around the incubator in Jurassic Parkand flitting around in Father of the Bride. It almost makes the film seem less Asian to see these actors present. David Thewlis has turned in one good performance after another over the last four years since he stood out in Mike Leigh's Naked. The Dalai Lama, played by three boys of varying age, seems not so much a font of wisdom as an unending source of simple straightforward curiosity, mostly about Western culture. Jetsun Pema, who plays the Dalai Lama's mother is in reality the Dalai Lama's sister. The film is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, who directed The Name of the Rose and The Bear. As with the former, the setting is main attraction of the film.

One disappoint of the film is that the actual time covered in Tibet is shortened by a long introductory section. The screenplay by Becky Johnston spends nearly half of the film just getting Harrer and Aufschnaiter to Lhasa so that the story from that point forward seems rushed. Most of the adventure, however, is in the first hour, with some harrowing scenes of mountain climbing. The stories of escapes, bound by the truth, seem almost cliched. John Williams spices the score with eerie Tibetan music. I rate the film a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

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