Pitt stars as Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountain climber who travels to British India in 1939 with the intention of climbing the Nanga Parbat mountain in Kashmir. While in India, war breaks out, and Harrer and his climbing partner Peter Aufschnaiter are arrested by British forces and imprisoned near the Tibetan border. This begins their extended stay in Asia, which climaxes in 1944 when they escape to Tibet and take refuge in its capital, Lhasa. There, Harrer meets and befriends the young 14th Dalai Lama, and becomes one of his tutors. Harrer remains in Lhasa until the People's Republic of China annexes Tibet in 1950.
Tropes in this film:
- Based on a True Story: The film is based on Heinrich Harrer's autobiography of the same name.
- Blatant Lies: The Chinese claim that they're saving Tibet from foreign imperialists. In one scene, after hearing a radio broadcast along these lines, a bemused Tibetan asks just where all these imperialist foreigners are.
- Dueling Movies: With Kundun, a 1997 biopic of the 14th Dalai Lama directed by Martin Scorsese. Despite underperforming in the box office, still earned nearly 15 times more money than the bomb that Kundun turned out to be.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: The movie downplays Heinrich Harrer's involvement in the Nazi Party. To be fair, he later described it as a youthful mistake and he never actually fought for the Nazis, having left Europe before the start of the war. Still, the image of him insisting that he's Austrian and only reluctantly taking the Nazi flag is a false one.
- Insistent Terminology: Both in-unverse and on meta-level, the film does its very best to remind everyone that Harrer is an Austrian and most definitely not a German or a Nazi. As stated in Historical Hero Upgrade, Real Life Harrer joined both NSDAP and SS before leaving to the Himalayas, which was pretty much pre-requested to go on the expedition.
- It Will Never Catch On: In a scene set in 1945, Harrer is told that "the war" is over. He is not surprised and asks if the Communists have given up. He is then told that "the war" he is being told about is not the Chinese Civil War, but "his" war, and that it is Germany who has surrendered. This elicits a bigger response from Harrer, as it means that he can go home now.
- Kick the Dog: Several Chinese officers kick and smudge the sand mandala the Tibetan monks have been painstakingly working on.
- This scene counts as a Critical Research Failure - the entire point of making a sand mandala is to destroy it in the end. So what's intended to paint the Chinese as disrespectful stops working if ones understand what's the purpose of a mandala.
- Then again, there's a difference between ritually destroying the mandala and unceremoniously stomping on it even as someone is explaining what it is.
- The Quisling: Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme is portrayed as this for surrendering to China instead of holding out in hopes of diplomatic intervention.
- Scaling the Summit: It starts with Heinrich Harrer leaving his wife and going on a climbing expedition in the Himalayas. While he's there, the war starts and he's arrested by the British Army.
- The Shangri-La: A more idealistic version of the Tibetan way of life than what was described in the book.
- Take Back Your Gift: In Tibetan culture, returning a gift is a great insult. Harrer returns a gifted jacket to The Quisling on purpose, because he wanted to make clear they really weren't friends anymore.
- Training the Peaceful Villagers: The Tibetans attempt to fight off the Chinese invasion is portrayed as this. As is typical of Real Life rather than Hollywood, they get slaughtered.
- We All Die Someday: The Buddhists are shown celebrating the impermanence of all things with statues made of butter and elaborate sand pictures. This is true to life.