The recent revelation that Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer at the heart of Seven Years in Tibet, was in fact a 27-year-old flag-carrying Nazi storm trooper when he set out to conquer the Himalayas’ Nanga Parbat peak in 1939, casts a strange light on Brad Pitt’s Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy-blond hair. I watch Pitt, as the cocky, self-centered Harrer, on an arduous journey that eventually takes him to the ancient Tibetan city of Lhasa. I watch as he strikes up an unlikely, deep friendship with the charismatic boy Dalai Lama (disarmingly played by Jamyang Wangchuk, the 14-year-old son of a diplomat from Bhutan), who teaches the restless Western man compassion and spiritual grace. And lo, before my eyes, the lustrous movie-star-platinum tresses no longer crown a hero’s head. Rather, they’re the locks of a pretty Nazi youth out of Cabaret singing ”Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
I blink. And it’s Pitt again, in Gunga Bradwear, mounting an Austrian accent like a peak to be scaled in boots that could still use some breaking in. French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who brought his interest in self-discovery and untamed places to Quest for Fire, The Lover, and the IMAX 3-D film Wings of Courage, is at his best re-creating the serene exoticism of the Dalai Lama’s Tibet. But the spark of the holy that the Dalai Lama lights in Harrer flickers only fitfully in all the wind in this production; Harrer’s spiritual growth at the feet of the young Buddhist leader is more reported than felt, as is his attachment to the son born in his absence to the wife he abandons for the mountains early in the picture.
If anyone projects a believable beam of spiritual sunniness, it is David Thewlis (The Island of Dr. Moreau) as Harrer’s countryman, competitor, and saga companion Peter Aufschnaiter. Not nearly so golden or well turbaned as his costar, Thewlis brings to the role of second bratwurst a gentle steadiness that was probably what His Holiness was trying to inspire in the handsome Nazi tutor all along. B-