Seven Years in Tibet

Seven Years in Tibet Information

Seven Years in Tibet is a 1997 film based on the 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet written by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer on his experiences in Tibet between 1944 and 1951 during World War II, the interim period, and the Chinese People's Liberation Army's invasion of Tibet in 1950. The film was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starred Brad Pitt and David Thewlis. The score was composed by John Williams and features cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

In the story, Austrians Heinrich Harrer (Pitt) and Peter Aufschnaiter (Thewlis) are mountaineering in the north of India. With the beginning of World War II in 1939, they are unexpectedly imprisoned by the British due to their German citizenship. In 1944, Harrer and Aufschnaiter escape prison and cross the border into Tibet, traversing the treacherous high plateau. While in Tibet, after initially being ordered to return to India, they are welcomed at the holy city of Lhasa and become acquainted with an unfamiliar way of life. Harrer is introduced to the Dalai Lama, who is still a boy, and becomes one of his tutors. During their time together, Heinrich becomes a close friend to the young spiritual leader. Harrer and Aufschnaiter stay in the country until the Chinese invasion in 1950.


Heinrich Harrer (Pitt) and his pregnant wife Ingrid (Ingeborga Dapk?nait"?) are being driven to the train station in Graz, for Harrer's departure on an expedition to Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas. Harrer, Aufschnaiter (the leader, whom Harrer resents), and the expedition group arrive and begin climbing the mountain. After an avalanche, Aufschnaiter orders the group to retreat back to the base, despite Harrer's determination to reach the summit. On reaching the base, they learn that Britain has declared war on Germany, so they are arrested by British Indian authorities and taken by truck to Dehra Dun prison camp. Ingrid writes to Harrer with divorce papers. After several unsuccessful escape attempts, Aufschnaiter manages to steal a British uniform and several of the prisoners escape. The members of the group go separate ways, with Harrer heading for northern India.

The rest of the group, apart from Aufschnaiter, have been recaptured. Aufschnaiter plans to travel to eastern China to find work. However, he joins group with Harrer and the two cross the border into Tibet and set out east, but are intercepted by two men on horseback who tell them that foreigners are strictly forbidden in Tibet because of an ominous prophecy from the 13th Dalai Lama. They are brought back to India, but they escape and climb up the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Harrer and Aufschnaiter join pilgrims traveling to Lhasa, covering their faces to avoid recognition as foreigners. When they try to steal food, Kungo Tsarong (Mako) invites them to stay at his home. At the guest quarters of Tsarong's home a Tibetan tailor named Pema Lhaki arrives to measure the two men; though both Aufschnaiter and Harrer take interest in her, Aufschnaiter wins her over and subsequently marries her.

The foreigners are observed through a telescope by the young Dalai Lama from the nearby Potala Palace. The Tibetan regent, Ngawang Jigme (B. D. Wong), on orders of the suspicious government in Lhasa, visits the Chinese embassy in the city and tells the officials there to stop subsidizing the monasteries. A Chinese official offers to bribe Ngawang Jigme, but he refuses. The Dalai Lama's mother (Jetsun Pema) instructs Harrer on courtesy when meeting the Dalai Lama. Harrer enters the interior halls of the Potala Palace. At the Dalai Lama's request, Harrer begins tutoring the Dalai Lama in world geography and the ways of the west.

While Harrer and Afschnaiter are attending a party, a Tibetan turns on the radio and a Chinese announcer proclaims that they plan to invade Tibet. At a meeting with the cabinet, the regent issues an order to banish all Chinese people from Tibet. That night, the Dalai Lama has a prophetic nightmare of Chinese atrocities near the Tibetan border in Taktser, his birthplace, with monasteries being burnt down.

Three Chinese generals fly to Lhasa to speak with the Dalai Lama, but they are visibly contemptuous of him and the leader of the delegation tells Ngawang Jigme that "religion is poison". The Dalai Lama sends Ngawang Jigme to lead the Tibetan army at the border town of Chamdo to halt a Chinese advance, but Ngawang Jigme surrenders and then blows up the Tibetan ammunitions dump after a sadly one-sided battle in which hundreds of Tibetans are slaughtered by better equipped and trained Chinese troops. During a treaty signing in Lhasa, Kungo Tsarong tells Harrer that if Jigme had not destroyed the weapons supply, Tibetan guerillas could have held the mountain passes, buying time to appeal to other nations for help. As the Chinese take control of Tibet, Harrer visits Ngawang Jigme to menace him about "betraying his culture".

The Dalai Lama, now fifteen years old, is formally enthroned as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. Harrer pays a final visit to the Lama on top of the Potala and prays with him. Harrer bids farewell to Aufschnaiter and Pema and returns to Austria in 1951 to visit his son Rolf, now a young boy. His son refused to meet with him. Harrer left the music box that was given by the Dalai Lama when he departed Tibet. Harrer and Rolf are seen mountain-climbing, suggested he did mend his relationship with his son at the end of the film.

The film ends with a series of title cards that list figures that quantify the death and destruction as a result of Chinese occupation. Harrer kept a good relationship with Dalai Lama after he fled from Tibet to India.


  • Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer
  • David Thewlis as Peter Aufschnaiter
  • B.D. Wong as Ngawang Jigme
  • Mako as Kungo Tsarong
  • Danny Denzongpa as Regent
  • Victor Wong as Chinese 'Amban'
  • Ingeborga Dapk?nait"? as Ingrid Harrer
  • Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk as Dalai Lama, 14 years old
  • Lhakpa Tsamchoe as Pema Lhaki
  • Jetsun Pema as The Great Mother
  • Ama Ashe Dongtse as Tashi
  • Sonam Wangchuk as Dalai Lama, 8 years old
  • Dorjee Tsering as Dalai Lama, 4 years old
  • Ric Young as General Chang Jing Wu
  • Ngawang Chojor as Lord Chamberlain (as Ven. Ngawang Chojor)


Most of the shooting took place in Argentina, in the city of La Plata (the train station where Heinrich leaves for Unserberg is the Main Train Station of La Plata, for example), and in the Mendoza Province, in such places as the Andes chain of mountains. Some time after the film's release, director Jean-Jacques Annaud confirmed that two crews secretly shot footage for the film in Tibet, amounting to approximately 20 minutes of footage in the final film. Other footage was shot in Nepal, Austria, and Canada.


Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Comparisons between the film and the book

There are a number of significant differences between the book and the film.

In the film, Harrer is hailed as a 'German hero', and replies "Thank you, but I'm Austrian". To have said that in 1939 would have been extremely bold, since Austria had been part of Greater Germany since the Anschluss of April 1938. In the book, Harrer says nothing about any such remark. Harrer at the train station in 1939 appears hostile to the Nazi Party, taking their flag with reluctance. The real-life Heinrich Harrer was in fact a committed Nazi Schutzstaffel officer.

The film makes his son a key theme, but in the book, Harrer does not mention his wife or son. He had in fact been married and divorced, as the film shows, but his ex-wife's new husband was killed in the war and Harrer's son was raised by his ex-wife's mother. In his autobiography, Harrer gives details of his contact with his son, but nothing to support what the film shows. In the book, Harrer says there was little to tie him to home as one of the reasons for staying in Tibet and not returning to Europe.

The pre-invasion visit of Chinese Communist negotiators to Lhasa, arriving at an airfield constructed by Tibetans, and their departure for China after a brief conference with their Tibetan counterparts"?including the desecration of the sand mandala as well as the "religion is poison" remark as depicted in the film, do not occur in the book or in any of the numerous histories that have been written about the matter. There was no air link until Lhasa Gonggar Airport was constructed in 1956"?when the Dalai Lama visited Beijing in 1954, he used the still-incomplete road system.

The whole sequence of negotiations and the installation of the Dalai Lama as ruler are out of sequence. Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama was enthroned as the temporal leader of Tibet on 17 November 1950. After the Chinese crossed the Jinsha River and defeated the Tibetan army in October 1950, a Tibetan delegation was sent to Beijing and agreed on the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama left Lhasa and took refuge on the border with India and Sikkim. The Dalai Lama disliked the agreement, but returned to Lhasa and for several years tried to work within its terms.


Seven Years in Tibet premiered on September 13, 1997 at the 20th annual Toronto International Film Festival. The film was commercially released on October 8, 1997 in the United States and Canada, with the film being distributed to 2,103 theaters for its domestic opening weekend. After its run, the film grossed $37,957,682 domestically and $93,500,000 overseas with an overall box office gross of $131,457,682.

Critical reception

Based on 33 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 61% approval rating from critics, with an average score of 6.3/10. Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating in the 0"100 range based on reviews from top mainstream critics, calculated an average score of 55, based on 18 reviews.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times acclaimed the film in general, stating that "Seven Years in Tibet is an ambitious and beautiful movie with much to interest the patient viewer, but it makes the common mistake of many films about travelers and explorers: It is more concerned with their adventures than with what they discover. Additionally, Ebert believed that the film was told from the perspective of the wrong character and thought that the casting of Pitt and Thewlis should have been switched around. Derek Elley of Variety praised the film's overall production value, but thought that "for a story with all the potential of a sweeping emotional drama set in great locations, too often you just long for the pic to cut loose from the ethnography and correct attitudes and go with the drama in old Hollywood style."


As the film was being released, it was condemned by the government of the People's Republic of China, stating that Communist Chinese military officers were intentionally shown as impolite and arrogant, brutalizing the local people. However, the Dalai Lama's portrayal has been noted as a positive one. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud and stars Brad Pitt and David Thewlis were banned from ever entering China. Annaud has since been welcomed back to China with open arms in 2012 to chair the jury of the 15th annual Shanghai International Film Festival. Also in dispute is the use of "Chinese Embassy in Tibet" and the term "occupation of Tibet", in view of the Tibetan sovereignty debate.

See also

  • Kundun, another 1997 film depicting the Dalai Lama during his youth.

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