An epic tale of survival, The Way Back is a film audiences can applaud. Based on “real events“, this film follows a small band of escapees as they search for freedom, even if they have to cross 4,000 miles on foot to do it. In theatres now, The Way Back has something for everyone; breathtaking visuals, an inspirational story, and touching scenes of friendship and courage.
Set against war-torn Europe in the late 1930s, the film begins with a young man being interrogated by a Soviet officer. He’s Polish, and caught between two armies; the Nazis have invaded from the west, and the Soviets from the east. Despite Janusz’s declarations of innocence, the officer accuses him of disloyalty to the Communist Party and he is sent off to a Siberian gulag.
The ice-encrusted wasteland that is Siberia looks frightening on the big screen. Three million square miles of lean land, and the welcoming committee at the gulag reminds the fresh prisoners that “nature is your jailor.” If one does happen to escape, he has the locals to worry about. That is if he survives the elements, and with what seems to be a constant blizzard and sub zero temperatures, even the prisoners who haven’t escaped are dropping dead.
All Janusz (played somewhat innocently by Jim Sturgess) dreams about is escape. He’ll do anything to get back to Poland, and his wife. After he hears rumors of a way out through the fence, he knows he must attempt escape, or die trying. Janusz soon meets some interesting characters; an older American named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris at his best here), a Russian criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell, who surprised me in a good way), and a few others including an artist and an ex-priest. He forms a small band with some of the men who have similar ideas of freedom. Mr Smith says if he’s going to die anyway, he’d rather die a free man. Luckily for all of them, Janusz spent his boyhood in the outdoors, and he knows all sorts of useful things. He becomes the band’s leader, guiding them south, always south. Their plan is to get to Mongolia, and from there across the Gobi Desert and over the mountains to India.
Along the way they face starvation, dehydration, getting lost, freezing to death, suffering heat stroke, and then freezing again (Siberia–Gobi–Himalayas). They also pick up a young girl on the run. Some succumb to the harsh elements and lack of water and food, some survive to the very end. It’s painful to watch at times as the intrepid band of travelers slowly dwindles in size. But as they all agreed in the beginning, better to live free or die.
The idea of the film is based on Slawomir Rawicz’s book The Long Walk, which chronicles his own escape from a Siberian gulag and the 4,000-mile walk to India. Weir has been quoted as saying the movie is essentially a fictional film, especially given the fact that Rawicz’s book was debunked in 2006. Records have been found proving that Rawicz was actually released from the gulag in 1942. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating and gripping story.
The scenery here really sets this film apart. Grand vistas of snowy mountains, frigid tundras, and vast deserts are captured with crisp clarity in panoramic cinematography. Maybe the involvement of National Geographic Entertainment had something to do with the picturesque scenery and all the great long shots (read miles and miles of gorgeous wilderness with a few men toiling along in the distance). Cinematography is extraordinary and the film is shot beautifully.
Peter Weir also must get credit for making this film so successful. He not only directed it, but helped write the screenplay. His passion is found behind every shot and his direction truly benefits the film. Weir has been at the helm of some great films, including Master and Commander, The Truman Show, Dead Poet’s Society, Mosquito Coast, and Witness.
Adding even more to the film are the performances, which are all superb. The trio of Farrell, Harris and Strugess works exceptionally well and all the actors bring their ‘A’ game. Relative newcomer Saorise Ronan also does some fantastic work and together, they all form a terrific cast. Farrell may steal the show here but everyone does admirable work.
Before I saw this film I heard someone say “it’s a man’s movie.“ I’m not sure what a “man’s movie” is, but as there were no gratuitous explosions or exposed boobs, I think this film is more of a “human’s movie.“ If watching Man (and I mean Mankind) overcome all odds doesn’t entice you, I’m not sure you’ll enjoy this movie and you probably shouldn‘t waste two hours of your time on it. All others should see it. It boasts strong performances, a moving story and some great scenery.