In the wake of recent events like the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, various civil wars and natural disasters, as well as tensions between the US and China, there has been more than ever a need for the arts, including cinema, to address the topic of peace – its importance, and its vitality to providing stability to the hectic world of the 21st century. In the pursuit of this goal, it is helpful to consider what ground has already been covered by past cinematic masterpieces. Above all, it is important to illustrate how wars, no matter how minor or localized, have global ramifications and are a reflection of human nature at large.
One of the best films that aim to accomplish this mission is the sweeping 1997 biographical drama Seven Years in Tibet. This Franco-American production, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Brad Pitt in the lead role, tells the story of Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer and explorer who spent, as the title suggests, seven years in the remote region of Tibet, and is based on a true story as outlined in the real Harrer’s 1952 memoir of the same name. The film grew out of a developing interest in Western countries toward the Tibetan culture, taking form ever since the end of the 18th century as “tibétologie européenne” or European Tibetology, and progressing through the New Age Movement at the end of the 19th century and into the ‘60s-’70s. During the ‘90s when this film was made, “Tibetan fever” was on the rise yet again, and studios financed big-budget epics like this film, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, and Windbreaker. At the same time, films like Red Corner were attacking the Chinese communist regime and depicting the Chinese soldiers as rude, brutish and cruel, particularly toward Tibetans. The level to which these characterizations are exaggerations is subject to debate, as will be discussed later.
The setting of the film is Vienna and Tibet in 1939-1951. The film tells the captivating true story of an Austrian decorated climber named Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) who, after coldly leaving his pregnant wife (“Go–leave! I’ll see you in four months!’), gets stuck in the area of Tibet while climbing the Himalayas, due to the start of World War II. After experiencing several misfortunes while climbing the mountain (predictably, there is an avalanche), he becomes a British prisoner of war, along with his colleague and friend, Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis). There, he receives divorce papers from his wife, Ingrid, and is promptly informed that he has a son. After many failed attempts, the Austrians escape the prison (with the help of other men whom Heinrich is quick to abandon, showing the extent of his egoism) and wander into Tibet. At first, they are less than welcome by the isolated inhabitants, who clap in their direction, trying to drive them away, considering them as devils. Finally, they are kicked out (since foreigners at that time were not allowed in Tibet, showing just how closed off and unspoiled this country was). However, the Austrians managed to travel in disguise to the city of Lhasa, the home of the 14th Dalai Lama, where they are sheltered by friendly Tibetan diplomat Kungo Tsarong.
When they get to Lhasa, the movie shows different parts of Tibetan culture, including prayer ceremonies, attire, language, religious art, music etc. It is here that the film takes a leap in its fascination toward its subject matter, and where it reaches its highest point – the young Dalai Lama, sitting on his parapet with a telescope, and his interactions with Heinrich, the foreigner. The Dalai Lama calls Heinrich because he wants him to build a movie theater near his palace, and while that is taking place, Heinrich teaches him all about the world outside of Tibet. They end up developing a close relationship, with the Dalai Lama almost becoming a son-like figure for Heinrich, to replace the loss that Heinrich is feeling for his own son. Their interactions has something to offer to both of them – the Dalai Lama satiates his endless curiosity about the Western world (cars and movies), while Heinrich is interested in the peculiar practices of the Tibetans, like gathering all the ants and moving them to a safe space before starting the construction, necessitated by the Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and the inherent value of life on Earth. Heinrich is also showing proper respect to the Buddhist culture and a peaceful attitude towards it, wearing Buddhist attire and learning their language. At this time, just as everything in the story is going well, the external conflict settles in – Chinese communist troops begin to approach Tibet. Because of this, Heinrich must help the Tibetans try to create an army, a very difficult task given their resources. It is here that the theme of peace vs. war begins to be explored in detail, for the Tibetans are not too enthusiastic about wielding weapons at all, even if it is to defend their own nation, representing a stark anti-war attitude. Heinrich describes it as “a peace loving nation vainly attempting to create a military,” while also openly shaming the Chinese for disrupting such a peaceful nation. Three Chinese generals fly into Tibet for a meeting with the Dalai Lama, and they propose peace, but at very high stakes – China needs to become the political master of Tibet, thereby paradoxically exposing its imperialist tactics while simultaneously claiming to be purging imperialists as part of its communist mission (this closely resembles the nature of misinformation in recent conflicts, like the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, where the Russian invasion was frequently described as merely “a special military operation” by the Russians). This does not end up working out, however, and the Chinese beat the Tibetans easily in battle at Chamdo, where the leader, Ngawang Jigme, a friend of Heinrich’s, surrenders and blows up the ammunition dump, forcing the Tibetans to surrender and sign a peace treaty. Heinrich later learns that Ngawang could have chosen not to not blow up the ammunition, which might have bought them more time. Distraught, Heinrich breaks all connections with Jigme, symbolically tearing off the outfit that Jigme commissioned to him as a gift before. The Chinese and Tibetans sign a peace treaty whose validity is still being tested to this day, as the Dalai Lama claims it was written under duress, while Jigme, the supposed traitor and leader of the Tibetan delegation, denies this. So, China ends up in charge of the area, imposing harsh regulations onto Tibet. At the end of the movie, Heinrich says an emotional goodbye to the Dalai Lama, and leaves Tibet to return to Austria, just as the Dalai Lama is being enthroned as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. The concluding scenes show Heinrich coming to visit his son, but choosing not to speak to him at the last moment, and instead leaving a music box the Dalai Lama gave him, for Rolf to pick up. Later, we see the father and the son mountaineering together, happily reunited, thus completing the film’s emotional journey as well as its spiritual and political journey.
The film was subject to much controversy after its release. Predictably, it was banned in China, and not only that, but all future films produced by the same company, Sony, were banned. The main actors were also banned from entering China.
The message was clear, but was it justified?
During many scenes, the Chinese soldiers are shown committing violations against the Tibetan culture, desecrating the sand mandala and commenting against Buddhist religion (“religion is poison”), accentuating their communist atheist viewpoint, as well as committing various atrocities. And this is not entirely true – while the Chinese did destroy Tibetan temples and Buddhist texts, that was much later, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. And this film did not entirely do justice to the fact that the British invaded Tibet before the Chinese in 1903, although they did acknowledge the fact that Heinrich was not totally innocent and that he was, in fact, a staunch Nazi supporter, adding in lines and voiceover narration addressing Heinrich’s grief as he “shuddered to recall his past terrors”. It also could have focused more on Tibet and its culture, instead of the transformation of Heinrich from egotist to altruist, with many reviewers commenting on the fact that “the movie had the wrong main character”. Overall, the film is a good exploration of the perils of imperialism and using war as a means to impose another country to do a preferred course of action, as well as a tender personal journey with the legendary Dalai Lama and his friend, “Yellow Head”, as he calls him. It is very much a cry for peace, and it is thought-provoking in that sense – transcending what could have been a mere 70 million dollar star vehicle for Brad Pitt and becoming a classic adored by many.
About the author:
Country: North Macedonia
School: Nova International School
Juror in Giffoni Macedonia: 2022 (host)
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