Making the Grades
We don’t see many films filled with grand, cinematic vistas from foreign lands, and in that regard The Way Back fulfills a much ignored genre in this age of virtual-everything imagery. Shot in India, Bulgaria and Morocco, this movie of a group of prisoners who escape from World War II Siberia has a very sincere feel about it. That’s even more credible due to recent accusations that this "inspired by real events" story may be based more on a work of fiction than reality. Regardless, there is still a legitimate tale here about the tenacity of the human spirit.
The film’s opening minutes display life in the Gulag, where true criminals reign in violence over political prisoners like Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish lieutenant whose tortured wife finally broke down and confessed to inflamed charges against him. In this hell of the frozen Soviet north, he meets Khabarov (Mark Strong), a former movie actor who did too good of a job in his last role where he played an attractive aristocrat. Khabarov has dreams of escaping—although he’s been in the concentration camp for years and has never had the courage to go through with his plans. Still he inspires newcomer Janusz to find a way out of their impossible confines.
The close quarters soon have a few other inmates excited about the idea too. Most notable is the sole American in the cluster. Going by a generic moniker, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) holds an unhealthy sense of fearlessness toward his barbaric captors. Valka (Colin Farrell), a psychopath with a much-coveted knife he isn’t afraid to use (he stabs a man to obtain his sweater), insists he’s coming as well. Also along for the trip is Andrei (Dejan Angelov), an artist who puts his skills to use creating nude drawings of females that he trades to desperate prisoners in exchange for rotting food rations.
Using a blizzard as the perfect cover for their escape, the group begins their journey across the massive USSR landscape, with the hopes of reaching freedom in Mongolia. But they soon learn liberty is much farther away, and set their sights on reaching Nepal and, eventually, India. Early in their exodus, they also include 14-year-old Irena (Saoirse Ronan), who they find starving in the barren wilderness.
As expected, during a road trip of this magnitude, there is ample opportunity for character development, as well as time to offer a little historical context and explain the atrocities that might motivate people to make such a painful journey. Some of these descriptions, along with the depictions of fights, stabbings in the prison and the killing of animals for food, may be unsettling for some viewers. Fortunately other content issues are few. While there are two sexual expletives in the script (they appear in English subtitles and are spoken in a different language), other profanities are mild and infrequent. Sexual content is also limited to the aforementioned nude sketches.
While the film seems a bit long, it’s difficult to criticize a 4,000-mile journey for feeling a little tiresome. Considering the small cast and frequent sweeping shots of the tiny parade plodding its way across vast deserts and plains, it’s a tribute to director Peter Weir for making this movie as engaging as it is. And whether fiction or not, this story does provide a valid look at the Soviet Gulags and a reminder of this often overlooked tragic chapter of history.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Way Back.
Mr. Smith often tells Janusz that he is too kind, and that his kindness will kill him. What is Mr. Smith really trying to say? Is it possible to be too good-hearted? How does Janusz’s compassion affect the dynamics of their small group?
Janusz fears if he never has the opportunity to forgive his wife, she will be haunted by her false confession forever. What do we learn about Janusz’s personality when he explains this concern? Why is forgiveness such an important aspect of human relationships? How might you help someone else by offering your forgiveness? How could this process benefit you as well?
This movie is based on a book written by Gulag prisoner Slavomir Rawicz titled The Long Walk. While many historians have praised the book’s accurate and detailed portrayals of life in the Soviet camps, a recent BBC documentary calls the reality of the story into question.