Brad Pitt, B.D. Wong & Sonam Wangchuk
One of the lead roles
Progress of Heinrich Harrer through India and Tibet on his trek across the high plateau to Lhasa is interwoven with the story of the young Dalai Lama growing into an 8 year old boy who becomes the spiritual leader of Tibet, with a thirst for western knowledge and later into an adolescent. The Dalai Lama is portrayed by three different actors as he grows up.
Harrer and his pregnant wife Ingrid are briefly shown being driven to the train station in Graz, for Harrer's departure on an expedition to Nanga Parbat. It becomes evident that Ingrid resents his departure. At the station Harrer barges through the crowds, dragging his wife by the hand, and shows his resentment of Peter Aufschnaiter
's selection as leader of the expedition.
Harrer at the train station in 1939 appears hostile to the Nazi Party, taking their flag with reluctance. The real-life Heinrich Harrer admitted he had Nazi sympathies at the time which he later regretted. Harrer's arrogance and self-sufficiency become apparent as he sits by himself on the train journey to India.
, and the expedition group begin climbing Nanga Parbat. Harrer falls, injuring his leg, but hides his injuries from the group. Harrer places Aufschnaiter
's life in danger by his inability to pull him safely up a cliff due to the pain of his injury; this worsens their relationship. After an avalanche, Aufschnaiter
orders the group to retreat back to the base, despite Harrer's determination to reach the summit.
While descending from the mountain, Harrer encounters a Tibetan traveller who gives him a photograph of the Dalai Lama for his protection. On reaching the base, they learn that Germany has invaded Poland, and they are arrested by the British and taken by truck to Dehra Dun prison camp. Eventually Aufschnaiter
manages to steal a British uniform and several of the prisoners escape. The members of the group go separate ways, with Harrer heading for northern India. Aufschnaiter
plans to travel to China to find work.
They cross the border into Tibet and set out east, but are met by two men on horseback who tell them they must turn back. Aufschnaiter
attempts to speak to them in Tibetan, which he learned while in prison, but is told that foreigners are strictly forbidden in Tibet. On reaching the next town and requesting food, they are confronted by the same two men. They learn that one of them is the garpon, leader of the province, and that the reason that foreigners are forbidden from Tibet is that there is a threat of attack from outside forces. Harrer attempts to appease the garpon by offering him the photo of the Dalai Lama, but they are forced to return towards India, escorted by two guards who are told to shoot them if they try to escape.
In Lhasa, Harrer and Aufschnaiter
cover their faces to avoid recognition as foreigners. When they try to steal food, Kungo Tsarong, played by Mako, seeing the condition of the travellers, invites them to stay. Tsarong asks for permission for the explorers to remain in Lhasa. The conversation is overheard by the secretary to the regent Ngawang Jigme. Jigme offers Harrer and Aufschnaiter
a gift of new clothes, and at the guest quarters of Tsarong's home a Tibetan tailor named Pema Lhaki arrives to measure the two men. Not having seen a woman for several years, they immediately attempt to win her affections. Eventually Aufschnaiter
has succeeded in winning the Tibetan woman's love and they soon get married.
Returning to Lhasa, where he has been hired to survey the city, Harrer is told by Ngawang Jigme that World War II is now over. Heinrich immediately begins packing for home when Kungo's elderly wife arrives with a letter for him from Austria. The letter is from the `Great Mother` of the Dalai Lama. When meeting for the first time, Harrer walks up to the throne, and the Dalai Lama plays with Harrer's mop of blond hair, calling him a yellow head. Shortly afterwards, the Dalai Lama asks a surprised Harrer if he can build a movie cinema at the monastery for himself and other monks, and if he can teach him about western civilization and become his private tutor during the building process. They become extremely close.
China eventually attacks despite the Dalai Lama's speech to them that Tibet is a peace-loving nation and many Tibetans are killed. Despite the Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama, now fifteen years old, is formally enthroned as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. Harrer pays a final visit to the Lama on top of the Potala and prays with him. As he leaves the palace, he is given a gift the music box which was shown to be so dear to the Dalai Lama at the beginning of the film.