Seven Years in Tibet. A German mountain-climbing expedition to mount Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas begins this true, epic tale of personal growth among the people of Tibet and their mountains. The expedition is doomed by the weather and the times. Driven to climb Nanga Parbat because it has become the "German" mountain, a nationalist effort. Everest, of course, wasnot yet conquered. Failing to climb to the summit because of the snowstorm and avalanche problems common in the Himalayas, the German expedition finds itself arrested and interned because of the outbreak of World War II. Finally escaping from the internment camp in Kashmir, Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) makes his way to Lhasa where he eventually meets Tenzin Gyatso, the young Dalai Lama. While at first the film carries on with the fascination of the Dalai Lama for information about the West, the takeover of Tibet by the imperialistic Chinese communists takes over the film.
Through out the film the lifestyle and nature of Tibetan life is a constant element. From the seemingly naive clapping of hands to ward off the foreign devils, the more illuminating details of life are continually offered. Striking one from the start is the theocratic nature of this once religious state. The Dalai Lama is the center to political life. The meaning of gestures and the intrusion of western influence on a traditional place take us deeper. The poverty of Tibet is present, yet easily overlooked because of the general acceptance of life and the happiness people have with it. The poverty is obvious, yet not important in the least for most of the picture.
It is only when the Chinese imperialists invade in 1950 that the poverty becomes blatant. This is because it suddenly can be compared to a form of non-poverty. The pitifulness of traditional societies resisting the power of modernity becomes a comedy noir. The Chinese communists are armed with all the weapons of modern warfare. The Tibetans have primitive guns, a few cannons, and spears. Life falls out of adjustment, the poverty becomes painful.
The geographic aspects of Tibet are a focus for the film-makers. They even have regular on-screen maps to show us where we are and where we are going. The maps are the simple hand-drawn jottings of the explorer, but that is the history of mapping. All of our fine world and other maps have simple drawings and jotting somewhere back in their past.
The Himalayas are magnificent. In reality the film was shot in Argentina, so one really is seeing the beauty of the southern Andes. The substitution of environments is common in film production, factors of cost, remoteness, government regulation, and other elements of film-production location dominate over full reality. To the viewer the difference is of no value. To the geographer the film and this practice are like that unlabeled slide sitting on the shelf in front of the boxes of carefully trayed and labeled slides: it looks like mountains west of Denver, but without any label or other clear reference, it could be from the Rockies, Andes, or the lower Himalayas. If you could make out one more tiny detail, you would know, but you cannot. We would let it sit outside of the trays we use, but if Brad Pitt says it is the Himalayas, that is good enough for most that walk this planet.
In those mountains you get rugged rock faces, avalanches, and snow storms. The winds prevent your progress. The rocks hurt your feet. The views stagger the mind they are so vast in white and gray.
The cultural landscape is also impressively shown. The material poverty of Tibet in the 1940's is clear. The clothes and foods, the art work, and the religion are fully presented. What a learning experience.
The music assists the experience. The John Williams score makes use of both local instruments and the western themes that suggest oriental culture and the vastness of mountains. Yo-yo Ma provides cello solos along the way.
In a more postmodern political role, this film plays a part in the international campaign to return Tibet to the Tibetans. While generally low key over time, Tibetans have an organized movement to gain world support for the removal of the Chinese. At the same time the low key nature of this effort suggests the weakness generally shown by the West toward China. With one out of every five consumers being Chinese living in China, can the viciousness of Chinese imperialism be opposed by those who value money and sales over freedom and justice?
Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 1997. Media Beat: Seven Years in Tibet. Dakota Alliance Summer (July) 1998: 6-7.