Sony // 1997 // 134 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // April 21st, 2003
At the end of the world, his real journey began.
Released just two months before Kundun, Martin Scorsese's film biography of the Dalai Lama, Seven Years in Tibet tells a portion of the same story from a different perspective -- that of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, portrayed here by Brad Pitt. Harrer escaped from an Allied POW camp in northern India during World War II and fled into Tibet, where he was befriended by the then-adolescent Dalai Lama during a seven-year sojourn later chronicled in Harrer's 1953 autobiography.
Upon its release in the fall of 1997, Seven Years in Tibet met with critical hostility -- stemming from the perceived miscasting of Pitt in the lead role, the film's "white man's burden" view of Asian history, and its gentle gloss over Harrer's former membership in Germany's Nazi Party and Hitler's SS (facts conveniently omitted by Harrer in his book). The moviegoing public greeted the picture with stoic indifference (during its domestic theatrical run, the film made back roughly half its reported $70 million cost). Available previously on a barebones, two-sided DVD marred by lackluster transfers, Seven Years in Tibet returns as the latest addition to Columbia TriStar's Superbit line of premium discs.
In 1939, Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt, Fight Club, Spy Game, sporting blond locks courtesy of Clairol) ditches his pregnant wife in Austria and joins an expedition to conquer Himalayan peak Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth-tallest mountain and one of the most challenging to ascend. Led by experienced guide Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis, Dinotopia), Harrer's team fails to summit due to inclement conditions. On the disappointing downhill trek, the German-sponsored group ends up as prisoners of a British detachment as the Second World War gears up.
After a series of abortive attempts that span the first several years of the war, Harrer and Aufschnaiter finally loose the surly bonds of His Majesty's hospitality and make their way north into Tibet. The two men become two of the first Caucasians to slip through the gates into the fabled Forbidden City of Lhasa, where they take up residence to wait out the conflict. Harrer and Aufschnaiter gain a benefactor in fast-rising Tibetan politico Ngawang Jigme (B.D. Wong, currently on view as the police psychologist in TV's Law and Order: Special Victims Unit), who sends a plain-spoken female tailor named Pema Lhaki (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) to craft the visitors suits of European-style clothes and make them feel more at home.
Time marches on. Aufschnaiter and Pema Lhaki marry. Harrer takes a job as surveyor for the city of Lhasa. One day, the Dalai Lama's mother (played by Jetsun Pema, in real life the sister of the Dalai Lama) summons Harrer to meet the 14-year-old Buddhist visionary (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk), who is fascinated by Western history and culture. The egocentric Austrian and the inquisitive youngster bond immediately, and develop a fast friendship that deepens and matures as the cyclone of global events creeps ever closer to the borders of the world's most isolated country.
Let's dispense with the customary misplaced argument right off the bat: Seven Years in Tibet isn't supposed to center on the life of the Dalai Lama. Certainly the film's narrative dovetails with the story Scorsese attempted (with middling success, in this Judge's humble opinion) to tell in Kundun, but give director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, The Name of the Rose) and screenwriter Becky Johnston (The Prince of Tides, the Prince opus Under the Cherry Moon) credit for not forgetting that they were, after all, adapting Heinrich Harrer's book. On that basis, the film focuses on Harrer, as it should. We could argue into the wee hours whether the story of the Dalai Lama, or that of Tibet as an entity, might make a better film. Perhaps so. But those aren't the stories Annaud and Johnston came to tell. That's their choice as artists. To condemn Seven Years in Tibet simply because it chooses to ride the horse that brought it is presumptuous at best and censorious at worst.
The real question is, does Seven Years in Tibet do an adequate job of telling the tale of Heinrich Harrer? The answer, unfortunately, is "less than it should." Part of the problem is the scope of the book -- when you begin drafting a script based on a work covering a decade or more of history, you know you're going to have to cut corners somewhere. Viewing the finished product, one wonders about the process used to select those corners. The movie spends most of its first hour establishing the parts of the story the audience cares the least about -- Harrer and Aufschnaiter's ill-fated attempt to scale Nanga Parbat, their tedious stay in the north Indian stalag (which looks like it was filmed on sets reclaimed from Hogan's Heroes), and their agonizing trek across the frozen tundra to the Forbidden City. We've seen mountain climbing movies, we've seen prisoner-of-war movies, we've seen snowbound-nature-hike adventure movies. We didn't sit down to watch Seven Years in Tibet to see any of those things. We came to see Tibet, darn it. Show us Tibet.
But Annaud doesn't show us Tibet, really. In fact, as the concluding credits were scrolling, I pondered just how little Tibet -- and how little of Heinrich Harrer's experiences there -- I had seen in the foregoing two-plus hours. Now, I'll confess I haven't read Harrer's book, but I'm presuming that he called it Seven Years in Tibet because he was writing about, well, his seven years in Tibet. Surely he had seven years' worth of amazing experiences in that mysterious and intriguing place, some of which have could been revealed in this film. Instead, once Harrer and his mountaineering companion arrive in Lhasa, Annaud's attention begins to wander. Harrer disappears for lengthy chunks of screen time while the narrative bounces around amid the skullduggery of the advancing Communist Chinese regime. Since that really isn't the story of this movie, it isn't told very well, and it detracts from the account of Harrer's experiences to the degree that by picture's end, we haven't connected much with anyone or anything in the film. And that's a shame.
The narrative flow -- or lack thereof -- in Seven Years in Tibet is appalling. Scene follows scene with monumental gaps passing in between, with only a modicum of explanation (sometimes not even that). For instance, we see the subtle flirting that goes on between Aufschnaiter and the tailor Pema Lhaki during a couple of introductory scenes. Suddenly in the next sequence, it's nearly half a year later, Aufschnaiter and Pema Lhaki have been married for several months, and we haven't a clue what Harrer's been doing with himself all this time. What happened? Here was a golden opportunity to show us the culture and people of Tibet from Harrer's first-hand perspective as he adjusted to this strange new world, but the director blinked and we missed it. This is but a single example of the disjointed manner in which this film staggers and stumbles to its far-too-distant (apparently, the movie's supposed to feel like it's seven years long) conclusion.
As one expects from Annaud and cinematographer Robert Fraisse (Ronin), Seven Years in Tibet is a feast for the eyes. The landscapes, mostly shot in the South American Andes and not in Tibet, are breathtaking, and the scenes in Lhasa fill the screen with color and life. And the cast does yeoman work with what minimal characterization they're given to work from. Brad Pitt's Teutonic accent rivals for grotesqueness Kevin Costner's notoriously mangled Angloglossia in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but when he's not butchering the Fuehrer's English, the future Mr. Jennifer Aniston does a creditable job of portraying Harrer's rocky road from rogue to redemption. Lhakpa Tsamchoe is delightful in her underwritten role as the no-nonsense tailor (don't call her a seamstress) who marries -- and presumably falls in love with, though we never see it happen -- a man from another world. (I'd have gladly watched an entire movie about her character and David Thewlis', but that, too, is another story.) Young Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk sparkles as the teenaged monk only beginning to feel the weight of the leader's mantle. A number of familiar Asian-American character actors , including B.D. Wong, Mako, Ric Young, and Victor Wong (prior to his unfortunate passing a couple of years ago, there must have been an unwritten Screen Actors Guild rule requiring that anytime a script called for a crotchety old Asian guy, Victor Wong got the right of first refusal) and an army of unknowns lend authenticity to the proceedings.
But pretty pictures and acceptable acting aren't enough. There was a grand tale to be told here, but the chance goes wanting because the director, it appears, couldn't decide what -- or whom -- he wanted the movie to be about. As a result, $70 million goes up in smoke while the audience tries to decide whether it cares. In the end, I didn't.
Columbia TriStar prolongs the Superbit agony with yet another installment in this much-ballyhooed but worthless format. Granted, the Superbit edition of Seven Years in Tibet offers a dramatic improvement in viewing experience over the previous DVD release, but I suspect this is largely due to the fact that the earlier disc crammed two versions -- one widescreen, one hack-'n'-scan -- of a 134-minute film onto a single platter. The compression failures were evident, to no one's surprise.
The new Superbit edition jettisons the full-frame transfer (without adding any new extras, because "Superbit" means you pay extra for the privilege of getting robbed of supplementary content), so the anamorphic version cleans up as if by magic. The new transfer displays crisp, vibrant color, a minimum of print flaws, and reasonably good (though not perfect) contrasts and shadows. It also retains the old standby Columbia bugaboo of excessive edge enhancement, which is even more glaring here than on the last couple of Columbia TriStar discs I've screened. I'd thought the Lady with the Torch and Her Flying Horse were falling out of love with this tired technique, but apparently I was premature in my optimism.
As with the video presentation, the soundtrack here -- accessible in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS -- is of high quality but unimpressive. John Williams, who has scored half the movies made since the introduction of sound, contributes a pleasant, suitably dramatic score featuring the cello stylings of Yo-Yo Ma. The nature of this film doesn't call for an active soundfield, and the DVD producers didn't try to artificially manufacture one. The only time I noticed the surrounds at all was during the land invasion sequence toward the end of the picture.
As noted above, Columbia offers this Superbit DVD in its pristine form, unencumbered by extra content that, frankly, would serve only to add value to your purchase. Also, the scene selection menu includes no chapter titles, making the identification of a specific spot in the film virtually impossible. Nice subtitles, though.
As an experiment, I monitored fifteen minutes of Seven Years in Tibet: Superbit Edition with the bitrate readout engaged. I then popped in a non-Superbit, reference-quality disc selected at random from my collection, and watched the gauge for the same period of time. The non-Superbit DVD consistently matched, and frequently exceeded, the bitrate levels of the Superbit edition.
Imagine my shock and awe.
Too much tripe, too little Tibet. Brad Pitt's a decent actor, and I'm sure that if his character were given more opportunity to interact with and absorb Tibetan culture on-camera, the audience would enjoy a more satisfying motion picture. As it is, Pitt and a solid cast are wasted amid cinematographic exercises and an unfocused script.
Brad Pitt is found guilty of dialect butchery and overindulgence in the peroxide bottle. Jean-Jacques Annaud is found guilty of transforming a potentially compelling story into butter-flavored tea. Heinrich Harrer is found guilty of hiding his Nazi past and abandoning his expectant wife and unborn son. Together they're sentenced to, well, seven years in Tibet. We're adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Michael Rankins; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Superbit Official Site
* The Official Site of the Government of Tibet in Exile
* Heinrich Harrer Fesses Up