Seven Years in Tibet (1997)




Director:  Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Starring:  Brad Pitt (Heinrich Harrer), David Thewlis (Peter Aufschnaiter), B.D. Wong (Ngawang Jigme), Mako (Kungo Tsarong), Danny Denzongpa (Regent), Victor Wong (Chinese 'Amban'), Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Ingrid Harrer), Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk (Dalai Lama, 14 Years Old), Lhakpa Tsamchoe (Pema Lhaki), Jetsun Pema (Great Mother), Ama Ashe Dongtse (Tashi), Sonam Wangchuk (Dalai Lama, 8 Years Old), Dorjee Tsering (Dalai Lama, 4 Years Old), Ric Young (General Chang Jing Wu), Ngawang Chojor (Lord Chamberlain).

Adapted from the eponymous memoir by Heinrich Harrer.


At the height of World War II, an Austrian Olympic skier travels to India to do some mountain climbing, becomes a POW during World War II and escapes to the holy city of Lhasa, Tibet.   He gets side-tracked when he meets the young Dalai Lama and his life becomes transformed.


Good movie.  Austria 1939.  Heinrich Harrer is an Olympic gold medal level champion mountain climber from Austria.   He is leaving for an expedition to climb to the summit of  Nang Parbat.  The leader of the expedition is Peter Aufschnaiter.  Heinrich is a selfish, egocentric bastard and he has been fighting with his wife who is expecting a child and does not want him to go.  One has a premonition of marital disaster when, as Heinrich leaves, his wife is being comforted by their mutual male friend.

July 29, 1939.  The expedition is on the approach to Rekiak Glacier. 

August 4, 1939.  They reach camp 5.  They have to wait for an extended period due to inclement weather. 

They are turned back by an avalanche.  As Heinrich descends the mountain he and the other members of the team are taken into custody as prisoners-of-war.  Germany and the Soviet Union have invaded Poland and World War II has begun.  He is taken to Dehra Dun POW camp, India.  While in camp, he receives divorce papers from his wife and news that they have had a son, Rolf. 

October 1940.  Heinrich makes his fourth escape attempt and fails again.

September 1942.  Heinrich escapes with the other members of his team, but then goes his own way.

July 6, 1941.  He is 30 years old.   Soon after this he runs into fellow escapee Peter Aufschnaiter.  Peter doesn't trust the selfish Heinrich, but they wind up journeying together.  Neither one of them want to go back to Austria.  But when they reach Tibet they are forcibly expelled with the chant "No foreigners in Tibet!"  But these foreigners will not quit.  They finally get into the capital city of Lhasa by hiding their faces and joining in with a group headed into the capital.  Once in they are befriended by Kungo Tsarong, an influential person in the government. 

May 1945.  News is received that the communists have taken over large sections of China. 

In Lhasa the two foreigners meet a Tibetan woman and compete for her affection.  Heinrich loses because he is absolutely opposite in spirit to the Tibetan culture that emphasizes selflessness.  Heinrich accepts the job of surveying the entire city of Lhasa. 

The Dalai Lama is a young boy.  He likes to watch the people of his city through a large telescope from the heights of his quarters.  He has been watching the two foreigners and when he see Heinrich teaching a Tibetan monk how to skate he decides to make Heinrich his tutor.  Heinrich has been mellowing in Tibet with its non-aggressive culture and he and the Dalai Lama form a very tight bond. 

When the Tibetans learn that Mao Tse-Tung intends to reunite the motherland with Tibet, they send the Chinese ambassadorial staff packing back to China.  This, of course, does not stop the communists as they return in force.  On the border they attack and destroy Takster in Amdo, the home town of the Dalai Lama.  The Chinese make the Tibetans an offer: if they accept Chinese political mastery, religious autonomy will be granted.  The Tibetans find this unacceptable and make pitiful attempts to gather together an army. 

The Chinese send in some 84,000 troops of the first and second field armies.  They attack and virtually destroy the Tibetan forces.  They capture the town of Den-Go.  Partly through treachery, the very critical town of Chamdo falls to the Chinese.  The war is lost in 11 days. 

What will happen to Heinrich and Peter now that the Chinese have taken over?  And what of the fate of the Dalai Lama himself?

The film is a moving study of the gradual transformation of a man from a selfish monster to a caring human being.  The Tibetan culture was just what Heinrich Harrer needed to save his soul.  We also learn about Tibet, its geography, people, culture and a piece of its history.   Brad Pitt with his hair blonde for the movie looks like the perfect idealization for the Aryan superman.  But he is too selfish to sublimate his personal desires and goals to any national goals and stays away from the fighting during World War II.  


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

Over one million Tibetans died and 6,000 monasteries were destroyed during the Chinese takeover of Tibet. 

In 1959 the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet for India, where he still stays. 

In 1989 he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize. 

Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama remained friends. 



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