The Way Back is a fascinating epic, and is even more amazing as it is inspired by a true story. A handful of prisoners escaped from a Soviet gulag in Siberia and walked 4000 miles to freedom. To India. Wait… what?!??! Even without a globe handy, anyone would know that that is completely crazy. But apparently it happened, and The Way Back is a recreation of this amazing tale.
The film opens in 1940, as a young Polish man named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is thrown into a Soviet gulag, for supposedly speaking ill of the Soviet government. He finds a motley crew of men in this Siberian prison. There’s an American man (Ed Harris) who is notably surly and short tempered, and he only is known as Smith. There is the Russian thug named Valka (Colin Farrell) who has the intimidating tattoos to prove his power. And there are many, many other men, young and old, of varying nationalities and backgrounds that blur together, alike in their misery. Some are there for real crimes, like murder, and others just had very bad luck with the government.
It doesn’t take long for Janusz, who knows how to survive in the wilderness, to want to make a break for it. A couple handfuls of men join him, escaping during a snowstorm… and before the night is through, their numbers are already smaller. The gulag wardens know that the nature itself guarantees that no men would survive long, even if they were stupid enough to flee.
The men give themselves goals: Lake Baikal, then Mongolia, then maybe Tibet. Well, why not keep going to India? Obstacles include weather (from frigid cold to baking heat), to more urgent issues, like starvation and lack of water. Oh, and don’t forget (perhaps worst of all): mosquitoes. They even pick ups a teenage girl on the way (Saoirse Ronan), who slowly reveals her own story, and why she is also on the run.
Peter Weir (Gallipoli, Witness, The Year of Living Dangerously, Master and Commander) is one of my all-time favorite directors. I found myself surprised that this film didn’t really get distribution, playing locally on one tiny screen before disappearing very short thereafter on its way to the rental bins. How is that possible? The Way Back, though a little slow at times, is gorgeously filmed, well-acted, and is a sprawling epic of survivalist adventure. The fact that it is based on a true story is not only truly unbelievable, but it is truly inspiring.
The only extra on the Blu-Ray is a half hour making-of featurette about the film, with interviews with Weir and many of the actors. Apparently Weir is so obsessive about accuracy that he built a full-scale replica of a gulag for the set. And when you see actors shivering together in a snowstorm, it is indeed snowing. Crazy. I would have liked to see something about the original survival tale which inspired the film: Slawomir Rawicz’ memoir The Long Walk.