Shot mostly in Argentina, Canada, Nepal and Austria, and based on Austrian mountaineer, Heinrich Harrer's detailed autobiography, director Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years In Tibet (1997) is the kind of sweepingly glamorous epic that harks back to the days of David Lean.
The script by Becky Johnston develops an interesting alter-narrative to Harrer's published accounts while managing to capture the flavour and mood of the piece. Unable to lens his film in Tibet, Annaud supervised a minor coup by sneaking a second unit in to capture approximately 20 min. of legitimate footage in and around the Forbidden City of Lhasa.
This being a Hollywood adaptation of life, there are, of course, discrepancies worth noting, beginning with the modification of the climber's association to the Nazi party. By all accounts, Harrer was unabashedly a Nazi SS Officer. In the film he is represented as a reluctant 'sympathizer' who is proud of being Austrian, but who agrees to plant the Swastika for the German government atop the Tibetan high plateau.
Loosely covering the span between 1944 and 1951, the film opens with Harrer (Brad Pitt) and his wife, Ingrid (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) quarrelling over his latest climbing venture. Unsympathetic to Ingrid's emotional and physical state (she is pregnant with their son), Harrer entrusts his good friend, Horst Immerhof (Gerardo Ebert) to look after Ingrid while he is away. Egotistical, pompous and self righteous to a fault, Harrer joins the rest of his expedition team fronted by Peter Autschanaiter (David Thewlis), but their relationship is a tempestuous one from the start, mostly due to Harrer's inability to consider himself as part of a team.
However, very shortly Harrer's own zealousness to conquer the Himalayas turns rancid, particularly after a harrowing storm and near avalanche threaten with the spectre of looming death. At the outbreak of WWII, Harrer and the rest of the climbers are declared enemies of the British Empire, arrested and taken to an internment camp in India. Over the next several years Harrer stages several daring escapes from the camp; all ending in his recapture.
Peter and several members from the climbing team devise a more devious plan of escape by impersonating British officers and local Indian labourers. At the last moment, Harrer decides to join them. The rouse gets Peter and Harrer past the camp, but Harrer pares off from the rest, declaring that he is better off alone. After nearly starving to death and enduring a brutal bout of dysentery from eating spoiled food left as a religious offering, Harrer and Peter are reunited.
Peter plans to seek work in China, a prospect that sounds promising to Harrer as well. Regrettably, the two are taken hostage by a hoard of marauding bandits but manage a harrowing night escape. To sustain themselves, Harrer and Peter slaughter their horses and consume the raw meat. Left for dead in the middle of nowhere, Harrer and Peter next encounter pilgrims en route to the forbidden city of Lhasa.
But their presence is hardly welcome by the locals who consider the sight of white flesh an evil. Only the Lord Chamberlain (Ngawang Chojor) and Gnawwang Jigme (B.D. Wong) advisor to his Holiness, the Dali Lama (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk) take a personal interest in these weary travelers; the former offering them his home, the latter making Harrer and Peter a gift of new clothes hand sewn by local tailor Perma Lhaki (Lhakpa Tsamchoe). Harrer is smitten with Perma, grandstanding at every opportunity to win her affections. But Perma quickly makes it known that her heart has been moved by the more reserved and introspective Peter.
Peter and Perma are married, relocating to a remote farm on the outskirts of the Forbidden City. It is a bitter pill for Harrer to swallow until he is informed by Great Mother (Jetsun Pema) that the Dali Lama wishes to meet him. From here the film's narrative focuses almost exclusively on Harrer's growing paternal affections toward the enlightened one, heavily associating their growing friendship as a surrogate for Harrer's internal struggle to justify having abandoned his own son.
In the meantime, the winds of change have 0taken ominous tones for Lhasa's inhabitants. A visit from the People's Republic of China, Gen. Chang Jing Wu (Ric Young) is hardly reassuring, particularly after the General and his advisors desecrate an intricate floor mosaic that the Tibetan monks have been toiling over for more than a month as a gesture of goodwill toward their Chinese invaders.
Ngawang Jigme makes a critical error by surrendering to the Chinese a mere eleven days after several villages are attacked; blowing up the Tibetan ammunitions dump and thereby dismantling all hope of a counter attack. As Chinese forces take hold of Tibet Harrer condemns Ngawang Jigme as a traitor to his Holiness.
Harrer next returns to the Lama with a plan of escape that is thwarted when the Lama explains to Harrer that he cannot leave his people when they need him most. It is through the Lama's compassion, understanding and finally, blunt assertion to Harrer that he never has considered him as his father, that Harrer comes to realize he must return to Austria and be reunited with his own child.
Perhaps in an attempt to bring closure to this narrative plot point, in the film, Harrer is reunited with his son, Rolf (Sebastian Zevalia as a child/Phillip Kreichbaum as a teenager). However, in reality Rolf was raised by his ex-wife's mother as Harrer never found much in life to implore him to his responsibilities as either a husband or father.
Seven Years in Tibet is masterful entertainment, regrettably marred by several oversights that threaten to sabotage the enterprise. Most obvious of these misfires is the central miscasting of Brad Pitt as Harrer, who so incredibly fractures his German accent that not a word escaping his lips is able to be believed or even moderately enjoyed. Pitt is clearly out of his element, regrettably so, since he must carry much of the action and resolution.
There is also the fudging of history to suit the confines of a Hollywood movie which must be addressed herein. For example, Harrer's autobiographical account contains no reference to an air arrival from China's Gen. Wu, perhaps because no airport existed near Lhasa until 1956 - five years after Harrer left Tibet. The film's depiction of Wu as a heartless Communist who equates religion to poison and encouraged his soldiers in their desecration of Tibetan villages is also a fabrication of Becky Johnston's screenplay and not Harrer's own reflections from that period. So enraged were Chinese officials after pre-screening the film that its director and stars were officially banned from ever entering China.
Johnston's screenplay is also noteworthy for its lack of fidelity to Harrer's own contributions while in Tibet. Her reconstruction of Harrer's life to suit the Hollywood convention of a man enlightened before the final fade out is admirable from a fictional perspective, but it does tend to emasculate the real Harrer's obvious infidelities as a flawed man. These are far more detailed - and arguably, more captivating - in Harrer's autobiography while all but left on the cutting room floor for the film.
In the final analysis, Seven Years in Tibet remains an interesting travelogue experience, primarily because Annaud is clever enough to mask these shortcomings with some truly stunning camera work by Robert Fraisse. The film ought to be seen - just not taken seriously as historical fact.
Sony's Blu-Ray incarnation is a marvel, perhaps not surprisingly so since its DVD release also boasted an impressive transfer. On the Blu-Ray we get a razor sharp anamorphic image with rich, bold and vibrant colors that quite simply pop. Flesh tones have been accurately reproduced. Fine details take a leap forward. In close up we can actually see makeup applications in several instances and pores on flesh. The audio is Dolby Digital and quite aggressive in spots - most noticeably in its music cues. Dialogue is natural sounding with good spatiality. Extras are regrettably limited to a featurette and trailers.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)