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‘Seven Years in Tibet’ (1997): The Ultimate “White Guy Attempts Cultural Diversity” Experience

seven years in tibet

Directed by: Jean-Jacques Annaud || Produced by: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Iain Smith, John H. Williams

Screenplay by: Becky Johnston || Starring: Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, B.D. Wong, Danny Denzongpa, Victor Wong, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Jamyang Jamtsho, Wangchuk

Music by: John Williams || Cinematography: Robert Fraise || Editing by: Noelle Boisson || Country: France, United States, United Kingdom, Argentina || Language: English, German, Mandarin, Tibetan

Running Time: 136 minutes


Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt, right) teaches the young Dalai Lama various topics from geography to history to geopolitics.

Brad Pitt gives a good performance in this satisfactory adventure of culture shock, war, and imperialism. Telling the true story of Austrian mountain-climber, Heinrich Harrer, just before, during, and after the second World War, the script focuses on Harrer’s escape from a POW camp in India and the adventures that followed as he made his way through south and central Asia. Along the way, he makes his way to the Forbidden City of Tibet where he befriends the young Dalai Lama, and there the majority of the character development and plot conflicts take place.

Both Brad Pitt and costar David Thewlis give admirable efforts to carry this story, which, for the most part, is adequately paced and contains sufficient humor and multiple character arcs to guide the audience through the narrative. All these things are desirable for a likable and effective film. The problem is that nothing jumps out of this mix as a powerful, unique entity from the Western world’s plethora of “philosophical-cultural-exchange programs” (and yes, there are plenty of them, e.g. Lost in Translation [2003], The Terminal [2004], Borat [2006],  Lawrence of Arabia [1962], The Last of the Mohicans [1992], Dances with Wolves [1990], Outsourced [2007], The Last Samurai [2003], Avatar [2009], The Gods Must be Crazy (1980), even the Bourne [2002, 2004, 2007] movies). We’ve all seen this stuff a million times before, and these premises are prone to cheesiness and heavy-handed messages.

Thankfully, Seven Years spends most of its time focusing on the story of Pitt’s Harrer, whose emotional journey is far more interesting than the world events going on around him. The parts that detail the Chinese invasion and conquest of Tibet near the end of the film are noticeably less interesting than the rest of the film, because the focus is not on the main character that we’ve been following for the better portion of a hundred minutes. China’s brutal military campaign and their generals’ callous attitude to their actions is disturbing, but our interest in them is rather minute due to the fact that we’re not introduced to their malevolence until the final forty-five minutes of the film. Altogether, this section of the narrative feels tacked on, although I do understand the filmmakers had to integrate it into the story because it is part of the region’s history. The one redeeming factor produced from the political turmoil is that we get to witness Harrer’s visible emotional dismay and anger at the blatant disrespect thrown at the new culture he has grown to understand and, to an extent, become a part of.

Pitt’s role undergoes a considerable arc in this regard. He grows from a self-absorbed, immature adventurer focused on his own self-preservation to becoming an important part of what was at first an alien culture, where he is invested in his new home’s well-being and future by the film’s conclusion. If anything, the strongest scene in the movie is Pitt’s final reconciliation with the young Dalai Lama (played admirably by the young Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk). The teenage spiritual leader elegantly sums up the personal adventure that Harrer has experienced during his time in Asia, and he points out, rather bluntly, that the Austrian cannot simply wait and expect either culture to solve his problems for him.


Supporting actor David Thewlis (right) is a reliable performer and has strong chemistry with Pitt’s lead in Seven Years.

Altogether, Seven Years in Tibet is far more about a man’s inner journey and spiritual transformation than his physical adventure, and the film breaks this theme down into an easy viewing for the audience. A 3-hour, poorly paced preach this is not. Most importantly, Pitt’s lead character is likable, and his arc, believable. The script is the real strength behind this film despite some lack of focus near the end, much more so than the by-the-numbers direction. It is in this way that Seven Years in Tibet succeeds, and we, as an audience, are able to experience this spiritual and emotional odyssey with the protagonist.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Seven Years in Tibet checks off the screenwriting basics with a likable, relatable lead, a decent arc for said lead, and bolsters the story around him with likable supporting characters and appealing location-cinematography. For a 136-minute film, the story rarely drags and contains little filler.

However… nothing terribly exciting or unique happens during this Asiatic journey. The imperialist threat in the later sections of the film is not well conveyed, though it does add narrative tension.


? Would any chick pick Thewlis over Brad Pitt?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


2 thoughts on “‘Seven Years in Tibet’ (1997): The Ultimate “White Guy Attempts Cultural Diversity” Experience

  1. A quibble. “Lost in Translation” is pretty much the inverse of that ‘cultural exchange program’ sub-genre. It’s set in Japan mainly to externalize the two characters’ alienation, and every Japanese character is either a one-off gag or a glorified extra (probably why it wasn’t particularly well received there). It’s as much about Japan as You’ve Got Mail is about email.

    Posted by pumpkinsnail | December 20, 2020, 10:17 pm

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