Seven Years in Tibet (1997 film)

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Seven Years in Tibet
Seven Years in Tibet cover.jpeg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJean-Jacques Annaud
Screenplay byBecky Johnston
Based onSeven Years in Tibet
by Heinrich Harrer
Produced by
CinematographyRobert Fraisse
Edited byNoëlle Boisson
Music byJohn Williams
Distributed bySony Pictures Releasing
Release date
Running time
136 minutes[2]
  • United States[1]
  • English
  • German
  • Nepali
  • Hindi
  • Mandarin
  • Tibetan
Budget$70 million
Box office$131.5 million[3]

Seven Years in Tibet is a 1997 American biographical war drama film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. It is based on Nazi party member and Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer's 1952 memoir Seven Years in Tibet, about his experiences in Tibet between 1939 and 1951. Seven Years in Tibet stars Brad Pitt and David Thewlis, and has music composed by John Williams with a feature performance by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

In the film, Harrer (Pitt) and fellow-Austrian Peter Aufschnaiter (Thewlis) are mountaineering in 1930s British India. When World War II begins in 1939, their German citizenship results in their imprisonment in a prisoner-of-war camp in Dehradun in the Himalayas. In 1944, Harrer and Aufschnaiter escape the prison and cross the border into Tibet, traversing the treacherous high plateau. There, after initially being ordered to return to India, they are welcomed at the holy city of Lhasa and become absorbed into an unfamiliar way of life. Harrer is introduced to the 14th 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 Battle of Chamdo in 1950.


In 1939, Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) leaves behind his pregnant wife to join Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) in a team attempting to summit Nanga Parbat in the British Raj (present-day part of Pakistan). When World War II begins in 1939, they are arrested by the authorities for being enemy aliens and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills, in the present-day Indian state of Uttarakhand. Harrer's wife, Ingrid (Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė), who has given birth to a son he has not seen, sends him divorce papers from Austria, by then annexed by Nazi Germany.

In 1944, Harrer and Aufschnaiter escape the prison and cross into Tibet. After being initially rejected by the isolated nation, they manage to travel in disguise to the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. There, they become the house guests of Tibetan diplomat Kungo Tsarong (Mako). The Tibetan senior official Ngawang Jigme (BD Wong) also extends friendship to the two foreigners with gifts of custom-made Western suits. Aufschnaiter falls in love with the tailor, Pema Lhaki (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), and marries her. Harrer opts to remain single, both to focus on his new job of surveying the land and not wishing to experience another failed relationship.

In 1945, Harrer plans to return to Austria upon hearing of the war's end. However, he receives a cold letter from his son, Rolf, rejecting Harrer as his father, and this deters him from leaving Tibet. Soon afterwards, Harrer is invited to the Potala Palace and becomes the 14th Dalai Lama's (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk) tutor in world geography, science, and Western culture. Harrer and Dalai Lama end up befriending each other.

Meanwhile, political relations with China sour as they make plans to invade Tibet. Ngawang Jigme leads the Tibetan army at the border town of Chamdo to halt the advancing People's Liberation Army. However, he ends up surrendering and blows up the Tibetan ammunition dump after the one-sided Battle of Chamdo.

During the treaty signing, Kungo Tsarong tells Harrer that if Jigme had not destroyed the weapons supply, the Tibetan guerrillas could have held the mountain passes for months or even years; long enough to appeal to other nations for help. He also states that, for Tibetans, capitulation is like a death sentence. As the Chinese occupy Tibet, Harrer condemns Ngawang Jigme for betraying his country, declaring their friendship over. Out of anger, Harrer further humiliates the senior official by returning the jacket that Ngawang Jigme gave him as a present, a grave insult in Tibetan culture; as well as by throwing him onto the ground before storming off.

Harrer tries to convince the Dalai Lama to flee, but he refuses; not wanting to abandon his people. The Dalai Lama encourages Harrer to return to Austria and be a father to his son. After the enthronement ceremony, in which the Dalai Lama is formally enthroned as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, Harrer returns to Austria in 1951.

Harrer's son, Rolf, refuses to meet him at first, but Harrer leaves a music box that the Dalai Lama gave him and this piques the boy's interest. Years later, Harrer and Rolf (now a teenager) are seen mountain-climbing together, suggesting that they have mended their relationship.



Most of the shooting took place in Argentina, in the city of La Plata (the railway 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 mountains. Some time after the film's release, director 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.[4]


Seven Years in Tibet
Film score by
ReleasedSeptember 30, 1997
John Williams chronology
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Seven Years in Tibet
John Williams
Track listing
1."Seven Years in Tibet"7:08
2."Young Dalai Lama and Ceremonial Chant"2:14
3."Leaving Ingrid"2:43
4."Peter's Rescue"3:45
5."Harrer's Journey"4:05
6."The Invasion"5:08
9."Approaching the Summit"5:44
10."Palace Invitation"4:46
11."Heinrich's Odyssey"8:03
12."Quiet Moments"4:21
13."Regaining a Son"1:48
14."Seven Years in Tibet (Reprise)"7:13

Comparisons between the film and the book[edit]

Monks passing under the Pargo Kaling chorten, or "Western Gate", in Lhasa near the Potala during Monlam Festival in 1938 Tibet. This structure was destroyed in 1967 and rebuilt in 1995. See the image in the original movie poster above.

There are a number of significant differences between the book and the film. At the beginning of the film, Harrer, who notably climbed the north face of the Eiger in 1938, 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.[5] In the book, Harrer says nothing about any such remark. Additionally, during the scene at the train station, Harrer appears hostile to the Nazi Party, taking the Nazi flag with reluctance. The real-life Heinrich Harrer was in fact a Nazi Schutzstaffel NCO, and stated in his 1938 book that "We climbed up the North Face of Eiger over the summit and up to our führer" while as a member of the German Alpine Association.[6][7]

The film makes Harrer's 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 during the war and Harrer's son was raised by his ex-wife's mother.[8] 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 his home as one of the reasons for staying in Tibet and not returning to Europe.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama left Lhasa and took refuge on the border with India and Sikkim. The Dalai Lama disliked the agreement. He returned to Lhasa, and for several years tried to work within its terms.[9]


Seven Years in Tibet premiered on September 13, 1997, at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival before a commercial release on October 8, 1997 in the United States and Canada where it opened in 3 theaters, grossing $46,130 in its first two days.[12] The film was distributed to 2,100 more theaters for the weekend where it grossed $10,020,378.[3] 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.[3]

Critical reception[edit]

Based on 35 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 60% approval rating, with an average score of 6.3/10. The site's consensus states: "Seven Years in Tibet tells its fascinating true-life story with a certain stolid grace, even if it never quite comes to life the way it could."[13] 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.[14]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times acclaimed the film generally, 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."[15] Ebert believed the film was told from the perspective of the wrong character and thought the casting of Pitt and Thewlis should have been reversed. Derek Elley of Variety praised the film's overall production value but thought: "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."[16]


As the film was being released, it was condemned by the government of the People's Republic of China, which stated that Communist Chinese military officers were intentionally shown as rude and arrogant, brutalizing the local people. The Chinese government also decried the film's positive portrayal of the 14th Dalai Lama.[17] Annaud, Pitt, and Thewlis were banned from ever entering China.[18] Annaud was since welcomed back to China in 2012 to chair the jury of the 15th annual Shanghai International Film Festival.[19] Pitt subsequently visited China in 2014 and 2016.[20][21]


Ceremony Category Recipient Result
55th Golden Globe Awards Best Original Score John Williams Nominated
Japan Academy Prize Outstanding Foreign Language Film Seven Years in Tibet Nominated
40th Grammy Awards Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media John Williams Nominated
Political Film Society Peace Seven Years in Tibet Won
Exposé Nominated
Human Rights Nominated
Guild of German Art House Cinemas Foreign Film Jean-Jacques Annaud Won
Stinkers Bad Movie Awards Most Annoying Fake Accent Brad Pitt (also for The Devil's Own) Nominated
Rembrandt Award Best Actor Brad Pitt Won
YoungStar Award Best Young Actor in a Drama Film Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk Nominated

See also[edit]

  • Kundun, another 1997 film depicting the Dalai Lama during his youth.
  • 1938–39 German expedition to Tibet, an actual state-sponsored expedition into Tibet by the political party to which Heinrich Harrer was attached.


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 6, 2015. Retrieved October 6, 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ "SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. October 21, 1997. Archived from the original on January 4, 2015. Retrieved January 3, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c "Seven Years in Tibet (1997)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Archived from the original on September 20, 2012. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
  4. ^ Nesselson, Lisa (June 10, 1999). "Director Secretly Filmed In Tibet". World Tibet Network News. Canada Tibet Committee. Archived from the original on January 8, 2011. Retrieved June 4, 2019.
  5. ^ Shirer, William L., The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Chapter 13. Shirer says of the plebiscite "it took a very brave Austrian to vote No".
  6. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (June 21, 1997). "Dalai Lama's Tutor, Portrayed by Brad Pitt, Wasn't Just Roving Through the Himalayas". The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 14, 2017. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on August 5, 2020. Retrieved August 6, 2020.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ Beyond Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer
  9. ^ a b Seven Years in Tibet
  10. ^ Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile, Hodder & Stoughton 1990
  11. ^ Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon In The Land Of Snows. (1999). Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11814-7. pp. 32-45.
  12. ^ Klady, Leonard (October 13, 1997). "B.O. puckers up to 'Kiss,' 'U-Turn' off". Variety. p. 13.
  13. ^ "Seven Years in Tibet (1997)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on December 12, 2016. Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  14. ^ "Seven Years in Tibet Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Archived from the original on March 22, 2018. Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  15. ^ Roger Ebert (October 10, 1997). "Seven Years in Tibet :: :: Reviews". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
  16. ^ Derek Elley (September 27, 1997). "Variety Reviews - Seven Years in Tibet - Film Reviews -- Review by Derek Elley". Variety. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
  17. ^ Canada Tibet Committee: "Hollywood's New China Syndrome (The Los Angeles Times) 'Red Corner,' 'Seven Years in Tibet' and 'Kundun' take the country's human rights record to task, especially regarding its treatment of Tibet. How will the Chinese react to filmdom's scrutiny?" Archived October 23, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ "Filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud goes from outcast to ally in China". Archived from the original on April 16, 2019. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  19. ^ Jonathan Landreth (June 15, 2012). "Shanghai Film Fest: Q&A with director Jean-Jacques Annaud". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on November 18, 2012. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  20. ^ "Brad Pitt breaks the ice with China visit after 'Seven Years in Tibet' issue". Archived from the original on August 27, 2017. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
  21. ^ "Brad Pitt Back in China After Reported Ban Over Tibet Film". Archived from the original on August 28, 2017. Retrieved August 27, 2017.

External links[edit]