The Dalai Lama and his people were driven from their homeland by the
Chinese more than 50 years ago. Over one million Tibetans were killed and
6000 monasteries were destroyed. Decades later, the Dalai Lama continues
to lead in exile, trying to convince the Chinese government to allow his
people to return home and live in peace and freedom. The story of these
noble people deserves to be told, and Hollywood has decided that the best
way to tell it is, of course, through the eyes of a white male movie star.
"Seven Years In Tibet" is the first of two movies about the Dalai Lama
due this year. This one is loosely based on the memoirs by Heinrich
Hammer, whose book proved so popular that it has remained constantly in
print since its debut in 1953. Brad Pitt plays Hammer, a self-absorbed,
foul-tempered Austrian who deserts his pregnant wife to go to India and
climb the Himalayas. Hammer was a Nazi, a fact that is noted, but
downplayed, in the movie. Conquering the Himalayas was an obsession with
his people, a point of national pride. While recovering from their first
failed attempt to scale the mountain, war is officially declared and
Hammer's group is quickly arrested and tossed into a prison camp. There,
Hammer receives a "Dear John" letter from his wife, who informs him that
his son will be taught to view her new husband as his father. Between
escape attempts, Hammer obsesses about his unseen son, composing letters
to the child and anticipating a life with him after the war. Eventually,
Hammer escapes with a group of fellow prisoners, ditches them, and heads
for Tibet, reluctantly accompanied by Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis),
a member of his original climbing party.
Entry into Tibet by foreigners was illegal at the time, but the men bluff
their way in, and end up entering the forbidden city Lhasa, the home of
the Dalai Lama. The young leader is a curious child, using a telescope to
peep at events outside his window. He spies Hammer, summons him to his
home, and finally, the movie kicks into gear.
The portrait of the Dalai Lama and his people are what "Seven Years In
Tibet" is really about. While Hammer's story is technically the focal
point, it is the least interesting part of the film and also the most
predictable. Think about it. The man is a ruthless, aloof Nazi. When his
heart finally begins to thaw, he fixates on the son he has lost. Then he
meets the Dalai Lama, a wide-eyed young boy. Any doubt where Hammer's
story is headed?
To Brad Pitt's credit, he does all he can with the role. His accent is
fine, as is his performance. But after the Dalai Lama enters the film,
Hammer's personal travails fade into the background. His budding
friendship with the Dalai Lama, however, provides the film's most
glistening moments. Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk plays the Dalai Lamai for
most of the film, and he is an exceptional young actor. His eyes light
with the joy of a child, but when called to address his people, his voice
resonates with a sense of wisdom that reinforces Tibetan belief that he
is their reincarnated spiritual leader. There is a great deal of protocol
involved in dealing with the Dalai Lama, but when the two are alone,
decorum is discarded as the boy uses Hammer as his window on the world.
The most engaging parts of the film involve the Dalai Lama's endless
questions about everything from movies to the legend of Jack The Ripper.
The interactions between Pitt and Wangchuk are credible and delightful.
When Mao takes power, one of his first acts is to "reunite" China. The
Tibetans react by declaring their autonomy and, very respectfully,
evicting all Chinese officials from their land. When war looms on the
horizon, we witness the sad spectacle of a peace-loving people preparing
to do battle. The tragic finale underscores the importance of the Tibetan
people's valiant ongoing struggle.
At well over two hours, "Seven Years In Tibet" is too long. It takes an
hour just to get Hammer to Lhasa, and the film would have been more
effective if they had cut to the chase quicker. Regardless of its
structural problems, however, the film is stately, beautiful to look at,
and tells an important story. It's a shame that Hollywood felt compelled
to tell it through the eyes of a white male movie star, but at least they
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott