An improbable, compelling saga
By Dan Kois
Friday, January 21, 2011
“It’s not our guns or wire or dogs that form your prison. Siberia is your prison,” a Soviet official proclaims to a miserable collection of prisoners new to the gulag, in Peter Weir’s historically dubious but dramatically compelling story of escape and endurance, “The Way Back.” The official points at the windswept, snowy forests that surround the camp. “Nature is your jailer,” he continues, “and she is without mercy.”
But in 1940, one of those prisoners, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), leads an improbable escape from the remote prison, 4,000 miles on foot from Siberia to India. How improbable? You’d never believe it, if it weren’t for the movie’s assurances that it’s based on a true story. And since those assurances are suspect — at best, “The Way Back” is based on Slavomir Rawicz’s discredited memoir “The Long Walk,” and at worst, a tall tale — it may be just a little too improbable. Weir’s movie is superbly made, but its fancy-dancing around history gives a hint of inauthenticity to a film that otherwise thrives on its reverence for historical detail.
Janusz and his fellow prisoners must endure the cold, as nights in the Siberian steppes can reach 40 below. Then there’s the unrelenting thirst of the Gobi Desert. There’s hunger; in one memorable scene, they chase a pack of wolves away from a fresh kill, then descend upon the carcass, wild animals themselves. There’s even a plague of mosquitoes, which swarm the poor escapees unceasingly and nearly drive them mad. (That detail might strike viewers as overblown, but anyone who has read Ian Frazier’s recent “Travels in Siberia” will wince, remembering his vivid description of Siberian mosquitoes pouring from the sky “as if shot from a fire hose.”)
Not all the escapees will reach their destination. (That’s no spoiler; an opening caption says as much, and even if it didn’t, the screenplay by Weir and Keith Clarke does an excellent job laying out the steep odds.) But in their long and difficult journey through taiga and sand, over mountains and under the Great Wall, they all achieve a certain heroic stature. Even if they must die, as Janusz points out before the trek begins, at least they’ll die free.
Standouts in the international cast include Colin Farrell as a Russian criminal with a big knife, and the exceptional Romanian actor Dragos Bucur (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) as an accountant with a quick wit. The touching Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) plays Irena, a Polish orphan who joins the trek along the way.
Best of all is Ed Harris, playing a reserved American engineer named Smith, and not just because Weir can explore the weathered crags of his face as if they were the valleys of the Gobi Desert. Smith warns Janusz that the Pole’s kindness might be the end of him, but when Smith forms a bond with Irena, Harris shows how the water of affection can enliven even the most sere of deserts.
That’s not to say that there’s much hugging and bonding in “The Way Back”; the movie is blissfully free of heroic speeches, swelling music cues, or overwrought death scenes. Weir has always been interested in men made small, fighting against the vastness of the world, whether it’s the Australian outback of “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the raging seas in “Master and Commander” or the artificial universe of “The Truman Show.” Long, wordless stretches of “The Way Back” take that theme to its endpoint, with Weir’s camera capturing the pitiful crew as they struggle across the momentous, beautiful landscapes.
“The Way Back” diligently catalogs the outrages through which extreme cold, hunger and thirst put the body, and Weir’s camera finds the terrible beauty in his actors’ chapped lips, windburned cheeks and tenderized feet.
But is an astonishing true story as impressive when it isn’t exactly true? The movie opens and closes with documentary footage of the Soviet spread through Eastern Europe, and places its characters definitively within that historical context. But a recent BBC radio documentary suggests that Rawicz, author of the 1956 book “The Long Walk,” never escaped from the gulag. Perhaps his story belongs to another, or perhaps he made it up.
In interviews, Weir is careful to refer to “The Long Walk” as a novel and the film as fiction; the movie itself, and its advertising campaign, fudge it. (The film’s National Geographic imprimatur adds to the confusion.) “Inspired by real events,” the poster proclaims, which sounds better than “Inspired by apocryphal events that may or may not have actually happened.”
Does it matter? It shouldn’t, I guess: “The Way Back” is a compelling movie. In fact, it’s an uplifting, complicated work of art from a director whose ability to tell intimate stories on a big historical canvas is unmatched in Hollywood. While viewers who prize veracity will quibble with the film’s framing of this unlikely tale, those who value cracking storytelling will find much to love.
Contains violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language.