They call it “human interest.” There are few narratives more compelling than a survival story like Peter Weir’s adventure yarn The Way Back, unless it’s the cautionary tale of one who failed to make it, as with C. Scott Willis’s The Woodmans, named best documentary at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
The protagonists of The Way Back, the veteran director’s first movie in the seven years since his seafaring Master and Commander, are a group of Soviet prisoners who escape the Gulag during World War II, trekking 4,000 miles from Siberia to Outer Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, over the Great Wall, and through the Himalayas to freedom. The source, Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, was an international bestseller when published in 1956; yeti sightings notwithstanding, it was considered a personal memoir for half a century until a BBC reporter established that Rawicz actually had been set free in a 1942 amnesty. Last year, another Polish World War II vet declared that The Long Walk was based on his story. The movie’s press notes handles these discrepancies by characterizing the Rawicz book as a novel.
Ending in 1989 with the fall of Communism and thus positioned as a Cold War allegory, The Way Back remains a grueling trip—true story or not. After his wife is tortured into denouncing him, the young Polish officer Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is sent to an Arctic forced-labor camp where he immediately begins plotting his escape. The Gulag is a museum of cruelty run by tattooed thugs—one guy is casually killed for his sweater—but, as bad as humans are, nature is scarcely better. The indomitable Janusz helps knock out the prison generator during a snowstorm; along with six others, including Colin Farrell’s tag-along—a cute li’l roughneck (added for the movie) with Stalin tattooed on his chest—he busts out into the howling blizzard.
The first night, one guy goes blind in the woods and winds up frozen solid. Thereafter, life is reduced to the essentials—digging for grubs, fighting the temptation to turn cannibal, battling wolves for scraps of meat. Having made The Year of Living Dangerously, Mosquito Coast, and The Truman Show, Weir is no stranger to challenging situations in exotic locations. The Way Back has no shortage of scenic splendor. What it lacks is drama. As undifferentiated as the escapees are, the movie is relatively uninvolving until they are joined by a gangly Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan, previously victimized in The Lovely Bones), also on the lam. Her presence precipitates the flowering of backstories and personalities, most successfully in the case of Ed Harris’s crafty, lone-wolf American.
Although seldom considered as a movie, The Passion of the Christ jump-started a trend in cinema as ordeal: United 93, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Hunger, and the Saw series are experiences to be endured. But whatever Weir may think of his onetime protégé Mel Gibson’s work, his hardship drama is stolidly old-fashioned, more extreme travelogue than exercise in visceral horror. Rather than suffer for our sins, his characters are resourceful, if not triumphant, paradigms of the human spirit. There’s even a sense in which the movie is about its own logistics, although it would take a fanatic like Werner Herzog to turn that into compelling cinema. Still, The Way Back does make its point. You won’t complain about anything in your life after seeing this movie—at least for the next 15 minutes.