Seven Years In Tibet

Seven Years In Tibet (1997)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, Lhakpa Tsamchoe, Jamtsho Wangchuk

Epic pictures, well-drawn characters, a colorful production design, and a moving story about war, peace, love and hate; these are the elements of "Seven Years In Tibet", a grandiose expedition into the realms of the Himalayas, the story of a man whose life and self have been completely changed by the seven years he spends in one of the world’s most beautiful, politically unstable regions.

Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) is one of the most famous alpine explorers during the time of the Third Reich. In 1939, the celebrated Austrian makes his way to the Himalayas as part of an expedition to climb the Nanga Parbat, leaving behind his pregnant wife. While he and his expedition attempt the mountain, World War II breaks out, and Harrer and his teammates are captured by the British, interred in a prisoner-of-war camp in Northern India. After four years and a huge number of unsuccessful escape attempts, he and his companions manage to trick the guards and escape to freedom. Hunted as they are by prison guards, only two of them survive, Harrer and his former expedition leader Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis). They are as opposite as they could possibly be, yet the two of them manage to make it to the border of Tibet by foot, where they are safe from the British authorities. Sneaking into the forbidden city of Lhasa – a place where no foreigners are allowed, and home of the Dalai Lama – they find themselves the first non-Tibetans tolerated within the city walls. When Peter befriends and marries a local tailor (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), Harrer is lonely. He thinks constantly about the son he has never met, and aches to be a father. Himself In desperate need for a friend, the young Dalai Lama (Jamtsho Wangchuk), fills this gap in Harrer’s life.

When I first heard the premise of the movie, I was expecting a political film about the tragic history of Tibet, and the no-less-dramatic life of the Dalai Lama. Only minutes within the film, however, it becomes clear that the film doesn’t even attempt that. It is instead a portrait of the part of Heinrich Harrer’s life that took him to Tibet and allowed him to become friends with the young Dalai Lama. Their relationship, which became a friendship that has lasted to this day, becomes reciprocal, both of them learning from the other and growing. While the Dalai Lama learns about the outside world and matters far from his religious education, he learns what it means to become a leader to his people. For Harrer, the friendship becomes a process of self-discovery and enlightenment, in which he learns and adapts the peaceful and balanced Tibetan culture. This kind of radical change in personality asks for a setup and story development in stages, showing how Harrer progresses, grows, and changes. Starting out as a stubborn, self-centered egomaniac NAZI, Brad Pitt makes a believable transformation to the selfless humanitarian Harrer becomes by the time he leaves Tibet, seven years later. Therefore, nothing is rushed and the film moves rather slowly, almost as if in a Tibetan pace.

Apart from David Thewlis’s excellent performance as the well balanced Aufschnaiter, who is the perfect counterpart for Harrer and who quickly blends into the Tibetan lifestyle, the portrayal of the Dalai Lama is worth mentioning. Played by Jamtsho Wangchuk, a son of a diplomat from Buthan, we see a spiritual leader thirsty for knowledge and genuinely curious. Watching him blossom and hearing him ask his the questions, it becomes obvious why the Dalai Lama is undisputedly one of the most respected leaders of our time, even to people who are completely unattached to the Lamaistic culture. Rooted in the gentle and tranquil culture of Tibet, he is one of the most peaceful people alive, exemplifying Zen with his thoughtful and totally non-violent attempts to rule and free his threatened country to this date.
Although the film touches upon the forced intrusion of the communists into Tibet in late 1949, which invasion eventually led to the Dalai Lama’s flight from the country in March of 1959 at the age of 21, it does not go to lengths explaining why this happened. We see how the people of Tibet were betrayed from within, allowing the militant Chinese occupation in this remote kingdom, but the film will leave you pondering what really happened back then, what the implications were, and why Tibet was so important to China. Interestingly, the conflict has not been settled to this date and Tibet is still under unlawful annexation by China. If you want to find out more about Tibet’s tragic history, and the background the film failed to deliver, we urge you to visit Tibet’s official website at and find out for yourself. You will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and you will surely be impressed and depressed at the same time to learn how this unique culture has practically been wiped off the earth by violation of international law and fundamental human rights. At the very least, you should read the Dalai Lama’s speech given at the Forum 2000 Conference in Prague in 1997. This can be found in its entirety at It is a testimony to diplomacy, bravery, and an intelligent call for world peace.

"Seven Years In Tibet" contains both a <$PS,pan&scan> and a 2.35:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> version of the movie, preserving the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio. The image on this disc is razor sharp on both versions and of very good quality. Some <$aliasing,aliasing distortion> is visible in this film, however, on regular 4:3 TV sets, mostly due to the transfer’s amazing sharpness, which enhances the loss of the <$16x9,anamorphic> display’s additional lines. This distortion is not distracting, but it was clearly noticeable. The transfer has many details and no compression artifacts anywhere. The colors are natural and nicely saturated. The film contains some monumental panoramas with excellent colors and lighting setups; this disc brings out the best of cinematographer Robert Fraisse’s cinematography. Do yourself a favor and watch this movie in its original theatrical <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio or you will miss out on much of the film’s phenomenal landscape photography, images that build the backbone to this story.

This Columbia Home Video release also features a fine score by John Williams. A few years ago, Williams seems to have taken a new route with his compositions and orchestrations, and it seems that he is going for less leitmotif-carried scores with a certain "hook", instead taking an approach that creates more of a tapestry of music that blends with the images. The disc’s soundtrack comes as a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix that is clear and dynamic with a wide soundstage. It also contains a French language track and English captions, as well as French, and Spanish subtitles.

"Seven Years In Tibet" is a soaring adventure, and while it is disappointing that the film doesn’t really cover Tibet’s political history and implications, it reminds us once again of the merciless intrusion and oppression of communist China into foreign territories Vietnam and Hong Kong being other examples of recent times. The film itself is excellently done, with stunning images and an intriguing story, and Columbia’s transfer of this movie to DVD is flawless.

Here’s yet some more information on the movie, which we found very interesting and did not want to withhold from you. Did you know that…

  • Tibet’s culture is 3000 years old and that the country has the size of all of Western Europe?
  • The film crew needed yaks for the shoot in Argentina Nepal’s and Tibet’s typical beasts of burden. They had to fly them in and the animals had to clear
    customs and were given individual passports with photographs and teeth imprints.