The Way Back is said to be about gulag escapees who, during World War II, trekked to freedom on a 4,000 mile journey from Siberia to India. I’m well aware that there are many true stories from that time about the triumph of the human spirit, but this particular story seems utterly impossible to me. Maybe it’s because the film is based on an autobiographical book that has, for all intents and purposes, been debunked. Or maybe it’s because director Peter Weir has flip flopped on the issue, on the one hand stating that the film is essentially fictional while on the other hand dedicating the film to those who made that journey. Then again, it could be something as simple as the way the film was written and shot. Whatever the case, this is one of the few World War II films that truly does seem like a work of fiction.
At the start of the film, a Polish POW named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is sentenced to twenty years in the gulag after his wife was forced into signing papers implicating him as a foreign spy. Once there, the film’s language barrier is conveniently dropped, at which point he meets a number of critical characters. They include a Russian gangster named Valka (Colin Farrell), a cynical Yugoslavian accountant named Zoran (Dragoş Bucur), a Latvian priest named Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), an artist named Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), and a young pole suffering from night blindness named Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky). The most important is an American known only as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), who now believes that kindness can get you killed.
An actor named Khabarov (Mark Strong) convinces Janusz that escape from the gulag is possible, despite warnings that the surrounding Siberian wilderness is unforgiving. They plot to hoard as much food as they can until the end of the winter, at which point they will go south towards Lake Baikal and eventually cross the border of Mongolia. Janusz eventually escapes with all the inmates listed above – with the notable exception of Khabarov, who was in fact preying on Janusz’s youth and strength to boost his own morale in the gulag. Valka insists on tagging along so as to escape reparations for gambling debts. Mr. Smith decides that Janusz’s weakness, his kindness, may prove beneficial. Who else but a kind person would carry someone should they be unable to walk?
So begins their harrowing journey, one that will take them from the snows of Siberia to the forests edging Lake Baikal to the Gobi Desert to a ruined monastery in Tibet to the Himalayas, the latter because it eventually becomes clear that India is the safest country for them. Along the way, they pick up an orphaned Polish girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan), who’s on the run and depends on the fugitives to take her to safety. They will all endure starvation, dehydration, heat, cold, and exhaustion. And, of course, not all of them are likely to survive.
Part of the problem is that the characters are little more than tiresome escapee stereotypes – broadly developed, simple minded, and always with the talk of their hopes and dreams. This occasionally allows for moments of unnecessary humor, as when Tomasz describes at length his recipe for seasoned chicken. Mr. Smith is probably the most complex character, but even then, he’s only at the service of the film’s message, namely that one cannot continue in life without forgiving themselves first. This is where Irena comes in; aside from using her youth and femininity to melt Smith’s heart, she serves no real purpose to the story; this will prove problematic when he allows himself to feel long before the film has come to end.
Another problem is a confusing and unconvincing depiction of distance and time. There are long passages in the Siberian forest and Gobi Desert, but as soon as the characters reach the Himalayas, it’s as if someone pressed the fast forward button; no more time is spent on their travelling, so we must assume that, after thousands of miles and stretches with little to no food or water, they suddenly have the strength to go from one side of the mountain range to the other. Never mind the thin air or the freezing temperatures.
The film is based on The Long Walk, a book in which Slawomir Rawicz recalls his experiences escaping from Siberia to India entirely on foot. This is interesting because in 2006, the BBC released a report based on Soviet records, some supposedly written by Rawicz himself; it stated that Rawicz was actually released as part of the USSR’s amnesty of Poles in 1942. It also stated that, rather than walking to India, he was transported across the Caspian Sea to a refugee camp in Iran. Further complicating matters is a Polish World War II veteran named Witold Gliński, who in 2009 claimed that Rawicz’s experiences were in fact his own. This too has been questioned. With so much confusion over something as basic as the truth, it’s no wonder The Way Back is one of the least satisfying war movies of recent memory.
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