The Search for Shangri-la

Dir: Various Various


80 mins/45 mins


This selection of films from the BFI National Archive reveals extraordinary images taken in Tibet, long a destination of fascination for travellers and explorers, from 1922 -1950.

The first film was taken during the 1922 attempt to climb Mount Everest. Subsequently, the British undertook diplomatic missions, with one visit witnessing the installation of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in Lhasa. Home movie cameras recorded these experiences, capturing ceremonial events, landscapes, flora and fauna. Collectively the films now provide unique and incredibly valuable record of Tibetan customs and traditions.

None of the people who captured these images could have anticipated the devastating events that would overtake Tibet or predict the future for its religious leader. The images are a poignant testimony to and a vital record of that lost world.

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Climbing Mount Everest

1922 | ph. Capt. J.B.Noel | 10 mins (extract)

The first film record of Tibet was taken during the 1922 attempt to climb Everest. The British party were permitted by the Dalai Lama to travel through Tibet on their way to try and scale the mountain.

Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society


1928 | ph. Col.F.M.Bailey | 5 mins (extract)

A legendary explorer and secret agent, Colonel Bailey travelled through Bhutan and Tibet in the 1920s and ’30s, making films that capture scenes of rural life as well as his own travels.


1934 | 3 mins (extract)

Sir Charles Bell, diplomat and friend of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, returned to Tibet in 1934. In this extract he is seen using local methods of transport to cross a river.

Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society

Mrs. Williamson's Films

1935 | 9 mins (extract)

Political representatives in Lhasa, Derrick and Peggy Williamson host tea parties and games at the British residency, including musical chairs and egg and spoon races.

Sir Basil Gould's Film Collection

1936 and 1940-41 | 12 mins (extract)

Sir Basil Gould, political officer, made two diplomatic missions to Lhasa. The first extract records his visit in 1936. In 1940 he was invited to witness the installation of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Courtesy of R.Gould

Mr.Baker's Film

1941 | 7 mins (extract)

Henry Baker accompanied the Gould mission and in 1941, filmed New Year celebrations in Tibet, including the Black Hat dance.

Major Guthrie's Collection

c.1945 | 7 mins (extract)

Major Guthrie served as medical officer to the British Mission. The extracts show a visit from the Sakya Lama and his wife and a ceremonial procession including a close-up of the young Dalai Lama in his golden palanquin.

Courtesy of C. Guthrie

Major Sherriff's Films

c.1943 | 10mins (extract)

George and Betty Sherriff ran the British Mission from 1943 to 1945. George was also a legendary plant collector in Bhutan and Tibet. His garden at the residency was often visited by local dignitaries, including the Dalai Lama’s family.

Tibetan Scenes

1945 | 12 mins (extract)

Tsien Lien Shen represented the Nationalist Chinese government in Lhasa, prior to occupation. His films record ceremonial occasions as well as everyday activities. A highlight is an impromptu fashion show given by his guests.

The Lost World Of Tibet

c.1970 | 7 mins (extract)

After returning to Britain, Betty Sherriff reflects on her time in Tibet.

With thanks to Roger Croston

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