Is the film Seven Years In Tibet based on historical facts?

By Sunil Kumar

I have seen this movie a long time back; but I remember some debate on the historical authenticity of this movie.

The mountaineer Heinrich Harrer was in real life; a member of the Nazi SS; a fact that is not mentioned in this movie; but it is sort of a big deal in the West. So; the director altered a few scenes. In life, as on-screen, Harrer and his fellow expeditioners were placed in a British prisoner-of-war camp in India at the start of World War II.

English: 14th Dalai Lama, Dharasmala, India

English: 14th Dalai Lama, Dharasmala, India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Harrer and several other prisoners escaped in 1944 (the movie has the escape take place earlier). He set off alone, but ended up traveling with Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), the head of the Nanga Parbat expedition.

They made their way across the border and into Tibet, contending with treacherous terrain, frostbite, hunger, robbers, and an interdiction against foreigners. Finally, they reached Lhasa, the “forbidden city,” in part by duping officials along the way with an out-of-date travel permit. And Harrer became a tutor to the 14th Dalai Lama.

The film plays up the Dalai Lama’s relationship with the Austrian; understandably for dramatic effect. Also; the Tibetan government had made an appeal to India and the United Nations for help when the Chinese marched in; but this went unheeded.

Tibet did fall to the Chinese in 11 days, and an incident shown in the film as crucial to the success of the invasion was indeed definitive–when, in a startling act of cowardice, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme (played in the movie by B.D. Wong), a Tibetan minister in charge of defending the town of Chamdo, not only abandoned it but also ordered the destruction of ammunition supplies before he left.

Moreover, the film’s foreshadowing of Chinese atrocities (as reflected by a dream in which the Dalai Lama sees his native village being pillaged and monks shot) reflects the historical facts all too well. As the written epilogue to the film states, almost all Tibet’s monasteries–more than 6,000–have been ransacked under the Chinese occupation. Seven Years in Tibet ends with the Dalai Lama’s enthronement in 1950 at age 15 and his assumption of the role of political as well as spiritual leader of the country. The complete occupation of Tibet by China in 1959; and his later life in India is beyond the scope of the movie.

The movie is more about the personal journey of Brad Pitt’s character(Heinrich Harrer) and celluloid drama; it is historically authentic in parts. Heinrich was a friend of the Dalai Lama for a long time; and he died in 2006.


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