SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, an ambitious true-life epic bio-adventure from 1997, emphatically starring Brad Pitt, directed with ample flair by Jean-Jacques Annaud, was based on the 1952 book “Seven Years in Tibet: My Life Before, During and After”, written by Austrian mountaineer (and Olympic skier) Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006).
“One million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Six thousand monasteries were destroyed.”
1939. Following an unsuccessful attempt to scale Himalayan peak Nanga Parbat for the glory of the 3rd Reich, Austrian climbers Heinrich Herrer (Pitt) and Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) are interned in India by the British when WW2 begins. After years of captivity, they escape and make their way to Tibet. In the exotic remove of Lhasa, they not only sit out the end of the war in peace, but also form deep bonds with Tibetans, including the young, 14th Dalai Lama. Peter marries a charming tailor (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), and Heinrich becomes tutor to the knowledge-thirsty spiritual leader (the 14-year-old Dalai Lama is played by Bhutanese actor Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, while the 8-year-old Lama is Jamyang’s younger brother Sonam). While these people get on with and share their lives, the new Communist rulers of China have decided that independent Tibet will become part of their country, no matter the human cost.
Becky Johnson’s screenplay naturally leaves out a good deal in order to simplify a decade of deeds enough for narrative momentum and audience patience. Hindsighting reveals it skips over that both men were Nazi party members, plus numerous escape attempts and assorted feats, Peter’s later life in Nepal, etc. Less sprawl then, so focus then could be placed on the rarefied setting, the developing political trap and the spiritual changes the two men undergo as they each find new hope and purpose in a land about to face its own monumental upheaval.
As expected, China was not about to cooperate. Some sneak filming was done in Tibet, but along with a little coverage accomplished in friendly Nepal, most of the mighty Himalayas and far-off Tibet were substituted by using the Andes in Argentina (near Mendoza), and spots up north in British Colombia, Canada. The Austrian scenes were shot there, in the Tirol. The beautiful cinematography was by Robert Fraisse. Besides the glorious backdrops, the foreground is packed with vibrant period and cultural detail. Director Annaud always insures his projects have intense visual resonance—Quest For Fire,The Name Of The Rose,The Bear, Enemy At The Gates, Wolf Totem.
Pitt does creditable work with a character who by nature was self-isolating, managing a decent Teutonic accent; carping critics at the the time were then still unwilling to unfreeze their pissy prejudice about his looks, hearkening back to sort the tired refrains that once beset Tyrone Power. Less-glamorous Thewlis fares better, not least because Peter is a nicer fellow than Heinrich from the get-go, and refreshingly, he wins the maiden, in the form of lovely Lhakpa Tsamchoe, 24, a natural in her first acting role. The boys playing the Lama are charmers. Others in the cast include BD Wong, Mako, Danny Denzonga, Victor Wong and Ric Young. The Dalai Lama’s real life sister, Jetsun Pema, plays his mother (hers, too).
It runs 136 minutes, which really was too short considering the amount of material to cover: the landscapes, ideas and people involved could readily absorb another half-hour of storytelling. $70,000,000 was required for the mounting (Herr Brad’s fee alone a cool $10m), but the effort was rewarded with a global take of $131,500,000, though 71% of that came outside the U.S., where it only lodged 57th on the year’s slate. Maybe geography challenged Americans thought Tibet was a new car? *
“We have a saying in Tibet: If a problem can be solved there is no use worrying about it. If it can’t be solved, worrying will do no good.”
* 1997 was a year to use movies to bash China over its brutal subjugation of Tibet. Along with Pitt’s epic, there was Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s meditative saga about the Dalia Lama and Richard Gere’s less-subtle thriller Red Corner. China did not appreciate the negative waves. As far as their antipathy to this film, the director, Pitt and Thewlis were banned from the country; the offended Party eventually relented, since the ideology of Money conquers in the end.