True story of Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountain climber who became friends with the Dalai Lama at the time of China's takeover of Tibet.
The title is a reasonable hint that this historical adventure is going to be a long stretch in the stalls and the opening titles are even more portentous. It's a pleasant relief, then, that although Jean-Jacques Annaud's heroic go at a David Lean proportioned spiritual epic never attains anything like the greatness for which it endearingly strains, it's agreeably watchable.
It's an eyeful, too, whether your aesthetic preference is for the awe-inspiring Himalayas or Brad Pitt, golden tinted into his glamorous, "young Robert Redford" mode. Annaud's way into Tibet is through the eyes of the foreigner who became tutor to the kingdom's boy leader at a time when outside forces were about to overwhelm its ancient culture; which recalls Bertolucci's angle on The Last Emperor.
Narration thus becomes part travelogue, part history lesson and part lugubrious autobiography. Annaud's central figure and the source for Becky Johnston's (Prince Of Tides) screenplay is Heinrich Harrer (Pitt), Aryan poster boy for the master race, a famous Austrian mountaineer, Olympic medallist and "oops!" member of the S.S. who misses out on the invasion of Poland when he is cheered off in 1939 to conquer the Himalayan peak of Nanga Parbat for the fatherland and his own greater glory.
That endeavour comes to grief when the Teutonic climbers are met by British soldiers and carted off to a P.O.W. camp in India. Very put out, the arrogant, selfish and totally unprincipled Harrer keeps escaping and eventually evades recapture. A jerk he may be, but his subsequent trek up the sub-continent is a remarkable feat of daring and endurance.
Reluctantly partnered by fellow mountaineering escapee Peter Aufschnaiter (Thewlis), the duo's odyssey is one which forces them to endure gruesome hardships before they finally stagger into Tibet's forbidden holy city, Lhasa. There they meet the spiritual leader incarnate, the present Dalai Lama, then a child (played at various stages by three delightful boys, A heroic go at a David Lean-style spiritual epic with Nazis, mountains and a P.O.W. camp. particularly the 14-year-old Wangchuk). Touchingly curious, the young kundun summons Harrer to teach him many things about the world beyond, asking: "Where is Paris? "What is a Molotov cocktail?" and "Who is Jack The Ripper?" The boy, as it happens, can teach him many things, too. And this is the heart of the story, Harrer's spiritual awakening and redemption in the presence of ancient wisdom and grace. He is also our witness to history when Tibet is engulfed and tormented after Mao Tse Tung's pronouncement that Tibet is a Chinese province.
Striking the only truly lamentable note is Brad's ludicrous accent (he says "Him-ah-lie-ahs" so carefully it adds 20 minutes to the running time). But he gives good nasty and is madly earnest and handsome, which can also be said of Annaud's characteristic mix of macho masochism and wonder.
Generally it looks great and works well, and while dramatically it may be iffy, it's ultimately moving all the same.