As a travelogue of a vast and magical kingdom, SEVEN YEARS IN
TIBET lives up to its billing. Unfortunately, as a story, it flags
much more often than it inspires. Although it hits many of the
highlights of recent Tibetan history, the vacuousness of Becky
Johnston's script, based on Heinrich Harrer's autobiographical book,
leaves one strangely unmoved. In good Hollywood fashion, the movie has
a twin so perhaps the other Tibetan film this year will prove to have
Besides the snow capped Tibetan mountains, viewers have sandy
topped Brad Pitt to stare at. With a sometimes all too cute Austrian
accent, he delivers as much as can be expected in such an
underdeveloped and overlong production.
As Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, Pitt plays a
self-absorbed character who in 1939 leaves his very pregnant wife to
scale a Himalayan mountain. It was a matter of German pride Heinrich
points out since several climbers had already died in failed attempts
to make it to the summit. Peter Aufschnaiter, the expedition leader,
grows tired of Heinrich's bravado when it threatens the group's
success. David Thewlis from BLACK BEAUTY plays Peter with precision
but little emotion. The genuinely harrowing visuals of their climbs
provide the few completely captivating moments of the film.
On the way down the mountain, Heinrich and Peter along with the
other members of the expedition are captured by the British and made
prisoners of war. Heinrich spends the next few years becoming the joke
of the prison camp as he tries again and again to escape but with no
success. As an apolitical figure, Heinrich is non-plussed. "I have
nothing to do with your silly war," he tells his captors. (The recent
revelations that Heinrich was a storm trooper and a member of Hitler's
SS may cause some viewers to flinch at his protests of political
As Heinrich rots in prison, his wife sends him divorce papers to
sign. His letters from prison to his son represent the film's escape
from its otherwise prosaic language. Lyrically poetic, his letters
contain powerful passages. In one he describes the Himalayas as "a
place rich with all the strange beauty of your nighttime dreams."
About halfway through the movie, Heinrich and Peter finally escape
and eventually find themselves in the home of the Dalai Lama. The
Dalai Lama, played as an inquisitive teenager by Jamyang Wang Chuck,
thinks Heinrich is really cool and pumps him for info about topics
ranging from Molotov cocktails to Jack the Ripper. These excessively
cute scenes dominate the story's latter half, and the almost total
destruction of Tibet seems, in contrast, almost tacked on as an
Except for the mountain climbing sequences, French Director
Jean-Jacques Annaud (THE BEAR) has as much trouble with the action
sequences as the more intimate moments. The film's few minutes of war
footage are filmed by Robert Fraisse in a blur with the rapid pans of a
purposely shaky, handheld camera. The effect of this choreography
leaves the audience more confused than moved.
Most movies have a part where suspension of disbelief is
essential. Here it comes when the only beautiful woman in the city
chooses the homely Thewlis over the body beautiful Pitt.
The story is not without its humor as when the workers stop
construction of the Dalai Lama's movie palace. A perplexed Heinrich,
who is in charge of the project, finds out the reason. The workers
have discovered worms in the soil that might be killed by the digging.
"In a past life this worm could have been your mother," the worker
"Your shame will be your torture, and your torture will be your
life," Heinrich tells a Tibetan traitor. "I wish it long." The film's
epic length is the audience's torture. One gentlemen in ours snored
loudly in a soporific protest of the film's languid pace.
The show has no ending. In the last twenty minutes it winds down
slowly like a tape player with a dying battery.
"Do you think someday people will get Tibet on their movie screens
and wonder what happened to us?" asks the Dalai Lama at one point in
the story. It was a sadly prophetic question that hopefully the other
Tibetan film this year will be able to address much better than this
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes