In Seven Years in Tibet, western filmmakers turn east [and south to Argentina] to tell a story of personal enlightenment.

A young Austrian, his country’s most revered athlete, climbs mountains to escape from himself. Leaving his wife, he treks to a remote kingdom to find a new truth. An ideal Aryan who befriends a boy of the yellow race, he dumps Hitler for the Dalai Lama. A man bred on competition, he becomes a missionary for peace and enlightenment. Sounds as though there’s a movie in Heinrich Harrer’s life.

A middle-aged Frenchman, his country’s most successful director, has not made a “French” movie in 20 years. Instead, he roams the world, immersing himself in far-off cultures and eras, testing his curiousity, artistry, endurance. The films that emerge from his researches are quests [Quest for Fire, The Bear, The Name of the Rose]; their creation is always an adventure and often dangerous. “The rougher the situation,” says Brad Pitt, who stars in the director’s latest epic, “the happier he is. The wind’s blowing at 90 m.p.h., there’s dust in your eyes, bombs going off, and he’s shouting in his wild French accent, ‘We must shoot. We must shoot now!’ He’s like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now,” Sounds as though Jean-Jacques Annaud is just the fellow to film Harrer’s life.

Annaud’s version of the Harrer memoir, Seven Years in Tibet, is true to the compulsions and contradictions in each man. It has exciting, boy’s-life-perils footage of men risking their necks [and breaking a leg] for the suicidal glory of getting to the top of something they can only come down from—the high before the depression. It documents the stubborn spirit of a fellow contemptuous of compromise, almost of humanity, and his rebirth in a land where each desolation dissolves in beatific smiles. It is about a solitary star, trussed in celebrity, who learns how to be a team player. This motif, of fame as a badge and as a burden, struck a chord in Annaud’s lead player. “I loved,” the director says, “that Brad understood what it was really about.” The film, then, is the partial autobiography of its begetters: Harrer, Annaud and Pitt.

In 1939, Heinrich [Pitt], glamour boy of an empire mad for mountain climbing, joins an expedition to scale Nanga Parbat in eastern India. The troupe is led by Peter Aufschnaiter [David Thewlis], but Heinrich will say sir to no man. He pays no attention to his own severe pain, little more to the safety of his comrades. Failing to reach the summit, they are taken as prisoners of war by His Majesty’s Government in India. Four times Heinrich tries to escape; each time security is increased. When Peter determines to get out, Heinrich thumbs a ride on the jail break.

Arriving in Tibet—among a tiny handful of Westerners in that cloistered, nearly three-mile-high kingdom—the two wrestle for the love of a beautiful tailor [Lhakpa Tsamchoe]. Then Heinrich is summoned by the Dalai Lama [Jamyang Wangchuk, a radiant 14-year-old from Bhutan]. The boy-god of Tibetan Buddhism wants to meet this “yellowhead” who can shed light on a world that is to him only a picture-book fantasy. “For example, where is Paris, France? And what is a Molotov cocktail? And who is Jack the Ripper?” The Dalai Lama becomes he most avid student of a man who never knew he was a teacher. And Heinrich, who has been renounced by the son he never met, sees in the Dalai Lama a boy so beautiful and curious he could be any wandering father’s perfect child. But it is now 1949, and the Chinese communists have plans to abort this theocratic fairy tale. Tibet, they declare, is theirs.

War and peace, Gulliver and The King and I; Ice Age meets New-Age—Seven Years in Tibet cannily has it all. Screenwriter Becky Johnston [The Prince of Tides] was drawn to the subject because “like most baby boomers, I went through a period of spiritual crisis, examining other faiths. I was always interested in studying Buddhism because it’s more than a religion, it’s a philosophy.” Her script is torn neatly in two, between the notion of conflict, which drives Hollywood movies, and the Buddhist sense of reconciliation and liberation. It is a Western film that goes East for answers. Its aim is to give the viewer, in images of rhapsodic beauty, a radical message: not fight and win but accept and give.

There were battles aplenty, though, to get the thing made. Annaud insisted that the film would not be hostile to China. But the Maoist bureaucrats must have noticed that he had his fingers crossed; they opposed his efforts to film in several nearby Himalayan nations. He set his location sites on India, but the government there dawdled endlessly. “I could see something was terribly wrong,” he says. “They kept telling us we’d get permission, yet nothing was happening.”

So he went to the diagonally opposite side of the world, Argentina, where the Andes would stunt-double for the Himalayas. This time, says Annaud, the Chinese tried pressuring the governor of the Argentine province of Mendoza. When he refused to cave, Annaud says, China put pressure on the Argentine government, which said thanks, but we can make our own policy on lucrative location shoots. The film was finally shot in Argentina, Chile, England, Austria and British Columbia. But the ruckus made Annaud a semiofficial enemy of the People’s Republic. “I am supposedly banned from China,” he notes. Friends have seen his picture hanging in a consulate like a 10 Most Wanted poster.

An Annaud film, remember, must be an adventure. “We had to helicopter the entire crew and gear up every day,” says Pitt of the mountain scenes. “It was a limited crew because it was so precarious; we could have been snowed in for 30 days. If the safety guy told us we had to evacuate, we’d do it like that,” But like the last U.S. officer in Saigon, Annaud would be the last to leave. “He would assemble the crew,” Pitt says, “and it was women and children first. He’d get the entire crew off and then take the last helicopter out, through the heavy snow.”

For its first hour the movie treats Harrer almost as suspiciously as the Chinese did Annaud. Seven Years in Tibet was an international best seller when published in 1953 [the year Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Everest], and Harrer subsequently made a career proselytizing for the Dalai Lama’s return from exile to his rightful throne. The book has thrills and uplift, but omitted Harrer’s membership in the Nazi Party, which was revealed in the German magazine Stern after shooting was completed. The filmmakers also believe that Harrer knowingly left his pregnant wife when he went to India, although he has said he did not know she was pregnant. Both elements are worked into the story line. “Here was a man,” says Annaud, “who on two levels was unwillingly to reveal the previous life he was ashamed of. That was the centerpiece of the movie.” Annaud and Pitt try way too hard to make Heinrich disagreeable. He’s a spoiled brat, a nasty Nazi. Only when he meets the Dalai Lama does Pitt get to unleash his birthday-boy grin.

From his home in Austria, Harrer, 85, elaborates vigorously on his life in ‘30s Germany. “I was an ideal case for the Nazis,” he says. “I was blond and young and successful. I was a great skier. I had climbed the Eiger north face. They wanted to have me, and they exploited me. I didn’t mind becoming a member, I admit this. I made ideological errors. So did Neville Chamberlain. I wasn’t farsighted or a magician to know what would happen later.”

Harrer, who hasn’t seen Seven Years in Tibet, has apparently achieved inner peace. He doesn’t criticize the filmmakers for turning his autobiography into an expose of its author. “I don’t grudge anybody,” he says. He is still close to the Dalai Lama, whom he met late last month in Trieste, Italy. “We had a wonderful talk, and he blessed some of the images I took of him years ago. He emphasized that the older we grow the deeper our friendship grows.”

That is the path a viewer may take watching the film. It can be gorgeous and crude in the same breath, but as it settles into its real story—“of two lonely people who found each other,” as screenwriter Johnston defines it—Annaud and especially Pitt relax into a sweet benignity. The smiles of those serene Tibetans are contagious; to be in the presence of young Wangchuk is to bathe in the aura of the most appealing goodness. Seven Years in Tibet may not convert anyone to Buddhism, but its aura lingers like the afterglow of revelation.