“Unforgiven” - Clint Eastwood (1992)

Unforgiven (1992) is one of the most famous American films about the Old West (i.e. the cowboy era), and yet it has generated a wide variety of responses and interpretations.  Indeed, I’m even aware of the film being the subject of an academic Ph.D. thesis [1].

The main issue among critics concerns the degree to which the film can be seen to be in the Old Western form of a hard-core morality tale – you know, “good guys” versus “bad guys”.  Some reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, saw the film as that kind of morality tale, albeit in a souped-up form [2].  Others still like the film, but view it differently and see it as a revisionist or anti-Western that is meant to debunk the shallow morality of the old good-guy-vs-bad-guy format [3,4,5].  As Murtaza Ali Khan summarises [3],
“Unforgiven doesn't embody righteousness, but projects domination based on ruthless opportunism. Unforgiven depicts a clash of egos, a battle of wits between two supreme caricatures.”
Part of the interpretive confusion about the film arises from the fact that Unforgiven stars and was directed by Clint Eastwood, an iconic “good guy” of Hollywood Westerns.  Eastwood wasn’t always a nice guy in those old films, but he was almost invariably heroic, and I particularly liked him in Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  But the real question in this instance is: was Eastwood an agent of good here in Unforgiven?  That’s where people disagree.

Certainly the film has always been well-regarded.  Unforgiven was nominated for nine U.S. Oscars, winning four of them – Best Picture and Best Director (Clint Eastwood), Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), and Best Film Editing (Joel Cox).  Screenwriter David Webb Peoples (also known for Blade Runner (1982) and 12 Monkeys (1995)) received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  Interestingly, the film featured four elderly actors playing key roles of aggressive gunslingers – Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris were all born in 1930, making them about 62-years-old at the time of this production; and Morgan Freeman was born in 1937, making him about 55.  And they combine to give a reflective seasoning to the actions undertaken by these characters. 

All in all, many people feel this film is Eastwood’s finest work, both as an actor and as a director.  Nevertheless, I would agree with some critics that the film’s overall message and whether it is in a good direction requires further scrutiny.

In this connection I would say that there are two fundamental themes associated with this film worth considering:
  • Morality 
    What are the overriding ideas or schemes that direct people in life?  What guiding principles direct them to do what they consider to be right?  I use the term ‘morality’ here, but I am not talking about a complete moral system, but rather a more primitive disposition, such as taking revenge, concerning how to intuitively do what is thought to be right.
  • Narratives 
    What are the stories in this connection that people tell about themselves and others that supposedly summarize who they are?  These little stories about someone often stick in the mind and immediately come up when we think of that person, whether he or she be a hero or a villain.
Traditional Old Western movies usually have just a single good-guy-bad-guy narrative and a simple narrative; but I would say, more along the lines of the perspective taken by Joseph Kupfer [6], that Unforgiven has a much richer tapestry in this regard.  To highlight these ideas in the following discussion, I will single out and enumerate various “Morality” and “Narrative” elements explicitly.

The story of Unforgiven starts and ends with a textual meta-narrative perspective (Narrative 1) from the mother of a woman, Claudia, who had recently died (in 1878) and who was the wife of the film’s protagonist, Will Munny (played by Clint Eastwood).  Neither Claudia nor her mother are ever seen in the film, and this meta-narrative element is only there to inform the viewer that Munny was known as a fundamentally bad guy:
 “. . . it was heartbreaking to her [Claudia’s] mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”
Then the film moves to the first of roughly six segments, many of which are atmospherically set in dark and rainy environments.  In fact these continually gloomy, rainy evening settings give a memorable expressionistic cast to the presentation that is one of the film’s main virtues.

1.  1880, Big Whiskey, Wyoming
Two cowboys, Quick Mike (David Mucci) and Davey Bunting (Rob Campbell), are with prostitutes in a saloon/brothel.  Suddenly these activities are violently disrupted when Quick Mike viciously attacks and disfigures his prostitute, Delilah (Anna Thomson), for having giggled at the sight of his puny cock.  The two cowboys are quickly captured by saloon proprietor Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) and then turned over to the strict town sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (played by Gene Hackman, famous for his roles in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The French Connection (1971) and French Connection II (1975)). 

Little Bill immediately intends to have the two cowboys horsewhipped, but this punishment is objected to by Skinny Dubois, who complains that he needs to be compensated for his damaged “property”, i.e. his disfigured prostitute Delilah.  So Little Bill changes his mind and orders the two cowboys to deliver seven horses that they own to Skinny Dubois.  The other prostitutes at the brothel, led by Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), however, are outraged by this decision and decide to pool their collected life savings – $1,000 – and offer it as a reward to anyone who kills the two cowboys.

So now we have several morality positions already staked out in this story:
Morality 1
  • Quick Mike wanted revenge for being insulted.
  • Skinny Dubois, a utilitarian, wanted monetary compensation for his material loss.
  • Little Bill wanted the perpetrator to be punished.
  • The whores wanted revenge.  
  • Note that Davey is condemned equally with Quick Mike, even though he didn’t slash Delilah.  He is deemed equally guilty just for being a partner of Quick Mike.
Since punishment is a form of revenge, we can say that three of these four agents wanted revenge.

2.  Recruitment in Kansas
The scene shifts to a small pig farm in Kansas, which is visited by a brash young gunslinger, “The Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), who wishes to recruit the farm owner, Will Munny (Eastwood) to help kill the cowboys and claim the now well-known reward.  Years earlier, Munny was a notorious outlaw and murderer, but when he met his now-deceased wife ten years ago and reformed under her guidance, he became a law-abiding citizen and father.  Because he is no longer the outlaw he used to be, Munny rejects The Kid’s invitation, and The Kid departs for Wyoming disappointed.  But after reflecting on the impoverished status of his pig farm, Munny changes his mind and decides to catch up with and join The Kid.  Soon Munny recruits his old gunslinging partner Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman, soon to famously appear in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)), and they both ride off to join up with The Kid.

Meanwhile, over in Big Whiskey, Quick Mike and Davey show up with eight horses to give – the seven demanded by Little Bill and an extra one to give to the whores.  But the whores want revenge, not compensation, and they drive the two cowboys away by stoning them.

Morality 2
  • The Kid cares nothing for morality and only seeks money and notoriety.  In his descriptions to others, he exaggerates the harm done to Delilah in order to evoke outrage  (Narrative 2).
  • Munny is now willing to sacrifice his acquired morality for money.
  • Ned Logan just wants a share of the reward money and to team up again with his old partner.
  • The whores still only want revenge.
3.  English Bob  
Then in Big Whiskey, a famous English gunslinger, “English Bob” (Richard Harris), shows up evidently looking to collect the whores’ reward money.  He is accompanied by a fawning chronicler, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who has already made money with his hero-worshiping book about English Bob, The Duke of Death.  But Big Whiskey is ruled with an iron first by Sheriff Little Bill, who absolutely prohibits any guns in the town.  In this sequence we see just how vicious and cruel Little Bill is, as he thrashes English Bob to within an inch of his life for gun possession.  Little Bill’s policy is to set horrifying examples to any potential future wrong-doers and scare them to death. 

After the severely injured English Bob is dispatched on a stagecoach out of town, Beauchamp decides to stay and transfer his reportorial focus to the fearless and cruel Little Bill.  Little Bill then regales Beauchamp with tales about his own cold-blooded nature and the lethal gun fights of his past.
Morality 3
  • English Bob wanted money and more notoriety via his biographer Beauchamp (Narrative 3).
  • Little Bill is sadistic and takes personal pleasure in seeing to it that anyone who breaks his rules suffers unbearably (Narrative 4).
4.  A Gang of Three
On the way to Big Whiskey, Munny and Ned finally catch up with The Kid.   When they see that The Kid is near-sighted, it becomes clear why he needs a partner; he needs a partner who can hit a target with a rifle from a distance.  But The Kid doesn’t want to split up the reward bounty three ways and rejects Ned.  Munny tells The Kid, though, that he won’t play without Ned, so The Kid has to accept him.

When they arrive in Big Whiskey, it is another dark and rainy night, and the trio don’t notice the sign at the town’s outskirts declaring that firearms are prohibited in town.  They go to the saloon, and while The Kid and Ned partake of some prostitute-fueled pleasures upstairs, the feverish and rain-soaked Munny sits sullenly at a table downstairs.  Just then Sheriff Little Bill walks in and, discovering that Munny is armed, beats him to a pulp, again overdoing it and leaving his victim half-dead.  Munny is left to slither on his hands and knees out of the saloon and into the falling rain.

Ned and The Kid just manage to sneak out of their bordello quarters and take Munny to a place outside of town.  While Munny is recuperating, The Kid proposes to Ned that the two of them carry out their murder mission without Munny. But Ned refuses and insists that they wait for Munny to recover.  After a few days and with the attending help of prostitute Delilah, Munny is well enough for them to go ahead.  
Morality 4
  • Munny is fiercely loyal to his partner, Ned.
  • Ned is loyal to his partner, Munny.
  • The Kid is not loyal to anyone and just wants the fame and money.
5.  The Murders
Munny, Ned, and The Kid now head out to kill the two offending cowboys.  They first ambush Davey outside of town, and Ned wounds him with a rifle shot.  But Ned is unwilling to fire any more shots, and Munny has to finish off Davey.  It becomes clear that Ned no longer wants to participate in killing, and he heads off on his own back to Kansas and without any reward money.

But before he can get away, Ned is captured by Little Bill and interrogated using torture in Little Bill’s effort to get more information about the whereabouts of Munny and The Kid.  Off-camera, Ned is tortured to death, and his corpse is placed in an open coffin outside the saloon to serve as a stark warning to anyone who might consider violating Little Bill’s rules about firearms.

Meanwhile The Kid traps Quick Mike when he is unarmed in an outhouse outside of town, and he kills him from point-blank range.  Then Munny and The Kid are visited by one of the prostitutes, who gives them their reward money and reports to them what has happened to Ned.

But The Kid was traumatized by what turns out to have been his very first act of killing.  He renounces his share of the reward and heads off alone back to his home.
Morality 5
  • Ned had renounced killing and gone straight.
  • The Kid renounced killing and his whole outlaw self-image (Narrative 5).
  • Munny now seeks revenge for what happened to Ned.
6.  The Showdown
It’s another dark and rainy night in Big Whiskey when the closing extended and well-edited segment plays out.  A determined Munny rides into town and heads for the saloon looking for revenge.  With his rifle, he guns down a defenceless Skinny Dubois at point-blank range.  Then he turns his ire on Little Bill and his armed posse of deputies, and a chaotic gunfight ensues.  Through it all, Munny is a grim indestructible exterminating angel, using his pistol to kill five more people with five more shots.  Then he reloads his rifle, and finding a wounded Little Bill still alive, shoves the muzzle into Little Bill’s neck and finishes him off.  Then he leaves the saloon, shouting to anyone within earshot that if he encounters any further resistance, he will kill them and their families and burn their houses down.

Morality 6
  • Munny has become the cruel embodiment of vengeance – the angel of death (“Maashhit”).  He has completely abandoned his earlier self-image of a reformed miscreant now following a virtuous path (Narrative 6).
The final textual frame reports that Munny and his two children had reportedly gone off to San Francisco and prospered in dry goods (Narrative 7).

So what can we make of this orgy of hatred in Unforgiven?  Is there any meaningful message to be taken from it?  Although some critics felt the film’s ending draws the viewer back into the traditional Old Western narrative, I would agree with Joseph Kupfer that this is not the case [6].  There are a number of different problematic moral stances expressed in this tale, but there are no heroes here.  Consider these key characters:
  • English Bob – egocentric and ruthless
  • Little Bill – a despicable, vengeful control freak
  • Will Munny – vengeful and selfish
  • W. W. Beauchamp – enthralled by simple Western heroism, but participates in the torture of Ned Logan
  • Strawberry Alice – obsessed with vengeance
  • Skinny Dubois – women are property to be used for his own profit
The Schofield Kid (who is a habitual liar) and Ned Logan do eventually feel uneasy about killing people, but they are hardly models of moral rectitude.  For me, although Little Bill is not a sympathetic character, reveling in his final annihilation serves no purpose and does not satisfy.  Basically all these people are obsessed with selfishness and rank.  For many of the men in the story, a pistol seems tp be just a symbol for their male organ [6].  And severe punishment is the way to degrade others and obliterate them from further competition. 

This is the essence of a Revenge Film, and Unforgiven simply elevates revenge to an almost hallowed status.  The narratives these people fashion for themselves are artificial and self-serving.  But as I have previously remarked in this connection, revenge films are a dead-end for those seeking some enlightenment or rewarding entertainment from film viewing [7]:
“Thrashing and stomping on those who are judged to commit wrong will not solve the problems in society; it merely perpetuates the cycle of hatred and violent reaction. All revenge films suffer from this basic moral discrepancy.  Such violent ‘retribution’ may supply some visceral satisfaction, but it is only a primitive, animalistic response.”
So although Unforgiven features some moody and evocative cinematics, it disintegrates into a disappointing and dispiriting conclusion.

  1. Ditte Friedman, Unforgiven: a hermeneutical reading, University of Melbourne, Australia, (2012). 
  2. Roger Ebert, “Unforgiven”, RogerEbert.com, (21 July 2002).  
  3. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Unforgiven (1992): Clint Eastwood's Tribute to Leone, Siegel and the Old West”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (March 2012).   
  4. Duane Byrge, “'Unforgiven': THR's 1992 Review”, The Hollywood Reporter, (3 August 2017).  
  5. Chuck Bowen, “Review: Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven”, Slant, (1 August 1, 2017).   
  6. Joseph H. Kupfer, “The Seductive and Subversive Meta-Narrative of Unforgiven”, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 60, No. 3/4 (FALL/WINTER 2008), pp. 103-114.    
  7. The Film Sufi, “‘Friday’s Soldiers’ - Masoud Kimiai (2004)”, The Film Sufi, (8 February 2012).   

Clint Eastwood

Films of Clint Eastwood:

“Midnight Express” - Alan Parker (1978)

Midnight Express (1978) is a darkly-tinged prison drama that is based on a true story – Billy Hayes’s own autobiographical account, also titled Midnight Express (co-authored with William Hoffer, 1977),  of his experiences inside a Turkish prison in the 1970s.  Billy Hayes was a young American student who was imprisoned in 1970 for possession of hashish as he was about to leave Istanbul and return to the United States.  I would say that the film, directed by the versatile Alan Parker, has an undeniable brilliance to it, but for various reasons it received only mixed reviews [1,2].

For one thing, some critics disputed the veracity of both the film’s and Hayes’s accounts of what actually happened [3,4].  Other critics complained that Billy Hayes was not a sympathetic character, because he was guilty of trying to smuggle prohibited drugs, and he was also responsible for carrying out some violent and unsavoury actions on his own part [5].  There were further complaints from critics that the film presented a slanted and negatively prejudicial depiction of the Turkish people, suggesting they were all cruel and/or corrupt [1].

I suggest, however, that we drop all these concerns about social and historical accuracy.  Midnight Express is really a horror film, and we should just treat it more as a brilliant expressionistic fantasy than as a strictly realistic portrayal.  The film draws the viewer into a disturbing nightmare from which there seems to be no escape.  But thanks to the film’s superb production values, which featured many emotive closeups and medium-closeups all the way along, it is continuously psychologically gripping.

In connection with these production values, we should commend the contributions not only of director Alan Parker, but also those of cinematographer Michael Seresin and film editor Gerry Hambling.  And perhaps an even more notable contribution was the screenplay by Oliver Stone, which turned out to be this ultimately famous writer-director’s initial breakthrough into big time Hollywood cinema.  In the end, Midnight Express was nominated for six Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director (Alan Parker), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (John Hurt), Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Oliver Stone), Best Film Editing (Gerry Hambling), and Best Original Score (Giorgio Moroder) – with Stone and Moroder taking top honours.  And the film was also nominated for the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or.

The story of Midnight Express takes the viewer on a journey that amounts to a descent into hell.  This goes through four stages.

1.  Incarceration
In October 1970, an American student on holiday in Istanbul, Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis), nervously straps 2kg of hashish to his chest and under his shirt prior to his return flight to the States.  But just before boarding the plane with his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle), he is accosted by soldiers, and after a strip-search, his hashish is revealed, and he is arrested.

Hoping for some leniency, Billy says he bought the hashish from a cabbie, and he takes the police there to identify him.  While the police are occupied with the cabbie’s arrest, Billy sees his chance to escape, and he runs off into the local neighbourhood looking for a place to hide.  But the police recapture him and throw him into prison.  So right away we can see that Billy is not exactly an innocent type.  He is a lawbreaking opportunist.  But because of the adroitly subjective way these scenes are filmed, the viewer can’t help from identifying with Billy’s plight.

On his first night in jail, Billy is freezing cold, and surprised to find his jail cell door unlocked, he sneaks out temporarily to steal a blanket for himself.  But a few hours later, he is awakened by chief guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith) and severely thrashed for his offence.  So now the narrative goal is set: how to get out of this rough confinement.  And our protagonist has a serious antagonist: Hamidou.

2.  An Alliance in Prison
When a few days later Billy comes to, he finds himself in a large prison and hooks up with three fellow Western prisoners:
  • Jimmy Booth (Randy Quaid), a brash American jailed for stealing just two candlesticks from a mosque,
  • Max (John Hurt, who would perform famously the following year in Alien (1979)), a mild-mannered English heroin addict, and
  • Erich (Norbert Weisser), a Swede who is also in for drug smuggling.
Together these four attempt to maintain their equanimity in the chaotic circumstances of the prison yard.  

Soon Billy’s father, along with a US government rep and a somewhat greasy Turkish lawyer, come to talk to Billy and prepare him prior to his trial.  At the trial, although the prosecutor wants Billy to get a life sentence for drug smuggling, the judge gives him a four-year sentence for drug possession, which his Turkish lawyer thinks is a good outcome.  Even so, Billy is crushed with the realization that he faces several more years in prison.

More and more, Billy is starting to realize that he has to find a way out of this hell hole.  He will have to escape by taking, what is known in prisoners’ parlance as, the “midnight express”.

Later, in April 1972, Jimmy tries to recruit Billy for his planned escape over the roof.  Billy balks, and so the headstrong Jimmy goes it alone.  But in the event, Jimmy is caught and severely beaten, leaving him with some permanent injuries.  So Billy’s supportive alliance has for the time being been weakened, and it is then further weakened when his friend Erich is released from prison.

Finally, in June 1974, just 53 days before his expected release, Billy learns that his original sentence has been overturned by a Turkish high court, and that he has now been found guilty of smuggling, not the lesser original charge of possession. So now he has to serve 30 years for his crime, and his downward spiral into hell continues without letup.

3.  Desperate Moves
So, with Jimmy now mostly recovered and back in action, Billy and Max agree to join another of Jimmy’s desperate escape plans – this time through the neglected catacombs below the prison.  But when they dig through the wall and climb down into the catacombs, they run into blockages that delay their progress.  And then their continued plans are revealed to the authorities by fellow prisoner Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli), a generally despised Turkish rat-fink, who fingers Jimmy to Hamidou again.  Again Jimmy is severely beaten, this time putting him permanently out of action. 

In revenge, Max and Billy arrange to destroy Rifki’s private and hidden money cache.  But now Rifki fingers his longtime enemy Max for punishment, and this finally pushes Billy over the edge.  Billy has so far been facing a relentless sequence of physical and mental torture from Hamidou, and he now goes completely berserk.  He goes on a crazed, violent rampage against Rifki in the prisoners’ common room, culminating in his biting off of Rifki’s tongue.  For this madness, Billy is sent to the prison ward for the insane.

4.  An Unlikely Way Out
Seven months later, in January 1975, Billy’s girlfriend Susan visits him in prison and is horrified by the condition she sees he is in.  Knowing that he can’t go on much longer, she manages to secretly pass some money hidden in a scrapbook to Billy and urges him to do whatever he can to escape. 

With some of this money, Billy, still somewhat dazed by his tormented mental state, manages to try and bribe Hamidou into taking him to a less-guarded area.  But Hamidou takes him to an empty room and prepares to rape him. With all his remaining energy, Billy makes a sudden lunge at Hamidou and inadvertently kills him by pushing the back of his nemesis’s head onto a coat hook.  Still in a daze, Billy looks down at the unexpectedly dead body and tries to fathom what has just happened.  Then he puts on a guard's uniform and walks outside to freedom.

The film’s final snapshots show that Billy eventually made it to Greece and later home to America. 

Midnight Express’s sudden and improbable ending differs from Hayes’s own account [3], but it contributes to the relentless tempo of out-of-control oppression that the protagonists in the film face.  This is truly a horror film portraying a world of unending punishment and pain.  Only a seemingly divine act of forgiveness (or simply an unfathomable stroke of good luck) can rescue our main character, and nether his virtues nor his vices seem to have anything to do with his deliverance.

Now you might think that, based on the account I have just given, I found Midnight Express to be empty and pointless.  But that is not true; I found the film to be a compelling existentialist thriller.  What we have here is a vulnerable and compromised protagonist, Billy Hayes, struggling to survive in an enclosed world dominated by the relentlessly sadistic and ominous Hamidou.  Thanks to the film’s artful direction, screen-writing, cinematography, editing, and acting, the viewer is compelled to follow Billy’s anguished struggle all the way.  It is the kind of tale told by the likes of Hesse, Kafka, and Camus, full of sound and fury, and signifying only brute existential longing.

  1. “Reception”, “Midnight Express (film)”, Wikipedia, (28 March 2020).     
  2. Eli Kooris, “Midnight Express”, Austin Chronicle, (15 February 1999).   
  3. “Differences between the book and the film”, “Midnight Express (film)”, Wikipedia, (28 March 2020).   
  4. "Billy Hayes (writer)”, Wikipedia, (5 April 2020).   
  5. Roger Ebert,  “Midnight Express”, RogerEbert.com, (6 October 1978).   

Alan Parker

Films of Alan Parker:

“Seven Years in Tibet” - Jean-Jacques Annaud (1997)

Seven Years in Tibet (1997) is an historical drama about Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s experiences in India and Tibet from 1938 to 1951.  During this time, Harrer undertook treacherous mountain-climbing efforts in India, became a World War II prisoner of war, and escaped to Tibet, where he had the opportunity to befriend and tutor the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. 

The film, which was directed by French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud and scripted by Becky Johnston, is based on Harrer’s own published report of his experiences, also titled Seven Years in Tibet (1952).  However, Annaud and Johnston apparently made some small, but what I believe were beneficial to the narrative, alterations of Harrer’s account [1].  Jean-Jacques Annaud, by the way, is one of my favourite directors, and I feel he has a special talent for conveying interesting narrative themes through images, such as he did in The Name of the Rose (1986) and The Bear (1988).  And indeed the basic narrative theme of Seven Years in Tibet is actually an issue here, because, although the film was well-received by critics [2,3], I think that some reviewers may have overlooked, what was for me, the film’s main idea.

The film traces Harrer’s remarkable experiences away from Austria stemming from his passion for mountain-climbing, and it covers a period of about thirteen years (1938-1951), the last seven of which were spent in Tibet.  Many people see this film’s stream of events as simply an amazing adventure story.  But I would say there is a more profound issue on display here: the varying cultural attitudes concerning how one addresses life and what one’s ultimate goals are.  Harrer represents one such attitude about life, and the Tibetan people, symbolized by the Dalai Lama, represent an entirely different outlook.  The first half of the story focusses on Harrer’s perspective, and we don’t get to Tibet and the radically contrasting perspective until almost halfway through the film.

I should comment here about the way these events are presented, because the impressionistic nature of the presentation is a key aspect of Annaud’s offering.  Although individual sequences are realistically portrayed, with many colourfully dramatized and detailed backdrops, the sequences shown are essentially dramatic fragments that have been carefully-chosen to present the given characterological theme.  These sequences frequently employ, despite the always colourful background present, adroitly filmed medium-closeup shots that convey important feelings and moods.  And also crucial to this presentation is the placement of Brad Pitt in the lead role.  Pitt’s boyish good looks and natural charm make it easier for the viewer to accept and empathize with his determined character.

The film opens in 1938 in Austria with famous mountaineer Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt) leaving his pregnant wife to join a team of mountain climbers seeking to reach the summit of the then still-unclimbed mountain Nanga Parbat (26,660, the 9th highest mountain in the world) in British India.  Right away we are introduced to Harrer’s selfish nature.  His wife is very unhappy that her husband won’t be around for the birth of their first child, but Harrer cares little about that.  They part at the train station with just a brief, unfeeling hug.

Harrer is joined on the team by fellow Austrian Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), and when they reach the destined Himalayas, they set out on their treacherous expedition.  The scenes presented here show them in all sorts of harrowing situations on the icy and rugged mountain cliffs.  In all these scenes the contrasting natures of Harrer and Peter stand out.  While Peter is basically cooperative and reasonable, Harrer is shown to be persistently boastful, stubborn, selfish, and uncooperative.  But that is Harrer’s nature – he is single-mindedly goal driven and willing to let the rest of the world be damned. 

However, soon World War II breaks out, and Peter and Harrer, being Austrians and therefore part  of the German state at that time, find themselves arrested by the British authorities and placed in a POW camp in the Himalayan foothills.  The rebellious Harrer then makes repeated solo efforts to break out of this prison, but he is immediately recaptured every time.  And during this period of incarceration, Harrer gets divorce papers from his wife back in Austria that he is instructed to sign.

Eventually, though, the more thoughtful and collaborative Peter comes up with a plan for several of them – Harrer is invited, too – to fool the prison guards and sneak out of the POW camp.  By now it is 1944, and Peter and Harrer manage to hookup and head on foot towards Tibet.  After several more harrowing experiences, the two bedraggled and almost starved escapees manage to stumble their way into Lhasa, the Tibetan Forbidden City.

Lhasa was a city that very few Westerners had ever set foot in, and the two European intruders are graciously welcomed by some of the residents.  One of them, Kungo Tsarong (played by Mako), a local official, invites them to stay in his home.  Another official, Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme (BD Wong), also befriends them and commissions the pretty tailor Pema Lhaki (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) to sew the two men some new Western-style suits for them to wear.  In short order both Peter and Harrer fall in love with the comely Pema.  During one of their ensuing meetings together, Harrer boastfully shows to her some of his scrapbook news clippings touting his mountain-climbing prowess.  Pema responds with perhaps the most revealing comment in the film.  She tells him that these clippings illustrate a great difference between their civilization and hers:
“You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life. 
  While we admire the man who abandons his ego.”
And soon, much to the shock of Harrer, Pema chooses the less-glamorous Peter to be the one for her.  After a few months Pema and Peter are married.

Harrer gets employed by the Tibetan government to carry out some surveying work, but in 1945 he gets news that World War II is over.  So he immediately intends to return to Austria and see his young son, Rolf.  Though he has never seen Rolf, Harrer has been writing heartfelt letters to him for some time.  But now Harrer receives a letter from Rolf rejecting Harrer’s claim of fatherhood and telling him to stop writing any more letters.  

With no family to return to, Harrer decides to stay in Tibet for awhile, and when he receives an invitation to visit the Dalai Lama at the Potala Palace, he jumps at the chance.  Up to now the viewer has only seen occasional glimpses of the Dalai Lama, who is still only a young boy (he was born in 1935), but from this midway point in the film onwards, the interaction between Harrer and the Dalai Lama (here played by Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk) becomes a major narrative focus. 

Despite the worshipful treatment he always gets, the Dalai Lama turns out to be a humble and engaging boy, and he and Harrer get on well with each other from the start.  The Dalai Lama says he likes movies, so he first asks Harrer to design and construct, with the aid of some labourers, a movie theater for him.  Then he asks Harrer to tutor him about the outside world, including lots of things about basic science and culture.  There are a number of engaging scenes here showing these nurturing sessions and the growing bond that develops between this Austrian mountain climber and the young Buddhist lama.

Things are going well for awhile, but in 1949 the new Communist Chinese government chooses to invade Tibet and threaten Tibetan sovereignty.  The traditionally peaceful Tibetans are unprepared and ill-equipped to respond to such a ruthless antagonist, and they can only hope for some sort of negotiated settlement.  However, in 1950 the Chinese military goes ahead and attacks the border town of Chamdo.  Ngawang Jigme, who is leading the hopelessly outmanned Tibetan forces at Chamdo, decides to avoid an inevitable slaughter by surrendering to the Chinese and destroying the Tibetan ammunition dump.  From what we can see in the film, this surrender seems like it was the most prudent action to take, but it stirred controversy among some of the more stubbornly combative elements among the Tibetans.  In particular, Kungo Tsarong confides to Harrer that, had Ngawang Jigme not surrendered and destroyed the ammunition, Tibetan guerillas could have blocked the mountain passes from China into Tibet for years.  Harrer, himself, sees the surrender at Chamdo to have been a humiliating act of betrayal.

When he next sees Ngawang Jigme, Harrer rudely hurls the suit coat that Ngawang Jigme had earlier gifted him back in his face – even though Harrer knows that returning a gift is considered to be a grave insult in Tibetan culture.  This brief scene is important to the film’s theme, because it shows us how far Harrer still was from understanding and adapting himself to the inherent ego-less Tibetan ahimsa culture of non-violence.

Although the resulting treaty that was signed between the Chinese and the Tibetans purported to ensure the Tibetans of their inner (local) sovereignty, the Chinese intentions were far from such magnanimity.  What ensued over the coming years was a genocide [4], as I have remarked in an earlier film review [5]:
“. . . in 1949 the Chinese Communist government invaded Tibet initiating what amounted to a human and culture genocide of horrific proportions.  Over the ensuing years, which include the depredations associated with the Cultural Revolution, one million Tibetans were killed or died of starvation, about one-sixth of the Tibetan population. . . .  And many more Tibetans were subjected to torture and long periods of confinement.  In addition, almost all of the 6,000 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed, and almost all of the sacred documents were burned.”
But in 1950 things were still up in the air.  Harrer is pessimistic about the Chinese and tries to get the Dalai Lama to flee Tibet, but the spiritual leader feels he must remain among his people.  But he urges Harrer to go back to Austria and try to be a father to his son.  This Harrer agrees to do, but he promises to stay for the 15-year-old Dalai Lama’s coronation as ruler of Tibet (17 November 1950).  (The Dalai Lama did eventually flee Tibet in 1959.) 

On Harrer’s departure from Tibet in 1951, the Dalai Lama gives him his long-treasured music box.  When Harrer arrives back in Austria, he finally visits his previously unseen son and gives the music box to him.

So by the end of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s impressionistic tale, we see that the viewer has been exposed to three principal male figures with three different outlooks:
  • Heinrich Harrer is single-mindedly goal driven.  He is selfishly interested in achieving his own personal glory, and any cooperation in this connection would most likely only dilute the personal fame he is seeking.  In this sense we could say he is a rational individualist.
  • Peter Aufschnaiter is also rational, but with a wider compass to his thinking.  He is a principled cooperator willing to engage in teamwork for the joint benefit of all his collaborators.  We could call him a progressive liberal.
  • The 14th Dalai Lama is cordially enthusiastic about life, but he embraces altruism.  He wants to learn as much as possible about the wonders of the world, but he always wants to stay within the bounds Buddhism’s (as well as Jainism’s and Hinduism’s) notion of ahimsa – never injure or kill other living beings. 
These three figures learn from their encounter, but in different ways.  The Eastern host, the Dalai Lama, learns practical things that rational Western science and technology has discovered about the world.   On the other hand, the two Western visitors, Harrer and Aufschnaiter, both learn about Eastern ways of cooperative engagement with the world, but to varying degrees.  Certainly Harrer’s hot-headed expression of contempt for Ngawang Jigme’s attempt to avoid the needless loss of life that took place late in the piece suggests to me that Harrer still had much to learn about Eastern ways.

The production values in Seven Years in Tibet are excellent across the board.  For example,  the acting in the film, even in the face of all those medium closeups, is superb throughout.  I particularly liked the performance of BD Wong in the role of Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme.  His thoughtful countenance is just right for a person facing the critical situations associated with this role.

As a final comment, I will mention that some readers might suggest that Harrer’s selfish Western perspective is the natural one for animal and human survival, and that structuring our society in a way that accommodates pervasive selfishness is the best approach.  The Eastern emphasis on altruism, they would say, is just a religious fantasy and not natural for human behaviour.  But recent scientific investigations have demonstrated that altruism is a natural and instinctive feature of human behaviour [6].  Even children under the age of two years old, and before they have received any moral training from adults, instinctively display altruistic behaviour when they are wordlessly presented with situations where altruistic behaviour is an option [7].  So I would say that the best approach for all of us is to help find the ideal combination of Western rationalism and Eastern altruism and propagate it to everyone all over the world.  This is a project to which I believe the 14th Dalai Lama has dedicated his whole life, and it continues to this day.

  1.  “Comparisons between the film and the book”, “Seven Years in Tibet (1997 film)”, Wikipedia, (25 March 2020).  
  2. Janet Maslin, “A Challenge for Brad Pitt: Trying to Make a Nazi Charming”, The New York Times, (8 October 1997).   
  3. Peter Travers, “Seven Years in Tibet”, “Rolling Stone”, (8 October 1997).   
  4. Maura Moynihan, “Genocide in Tibet”, The Washington Post, (25 January 1998).   
  5. The Film Sufi, “‘Journey to Enlightenment’ - Matthieu Ricard (1995)”, The Film Sufi, (7 July 2019).   
  6. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015), pp. 208-224.
  7. Ibid.

Jean-Jacques Annaud

Films of Jean-Jacques Annaud: