There are some movies that you have a sense of importance about them, a feeling prior to watching that what you are about to witness is important and a film that needs to be seen. Films of this sort rarely live up to those expectations. THE WAY BACK is not one of those. This is a movie that people should see, people who need to know that the price of freedom isn’t cheap.
Opening in 1943, we are introduced to Janusz (Jim Sturges) a polish officer who is accused of treason by the Russians. With the help of his wife who was tortured into making the accusations, Janusz is sent to one of the gulags (work camps) in Sibera. The gulags were the Russian equivalent of the death camps the Nazis had but not as well publicized or (as is revealed in the extras on this DVD) recorded as much as the Nazis did their camps.
Unwilling to remain in the camp, Janusz makes friends with another prisoner who says there is a way out. Given directions and the smallest of hopes that it can happen, the pair make plans to escape. But at the same time, they realize there is a better chance with greater numbers. They pick up several people in their plan and when the time arrives they stall the camp’s generator and head for a weak link in the fence.
On the run facing the dangers of the frozen wilderness as well as the possibility of capture by the guards or by people of the area since they have a price on their heads, the group struggles on, keeping off the beaten path and making their way to what they hope is freedom. Among the group are an American who goes by the name of Mister Smith (Ed Harris) and a Russian criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell). Each has their own idiosyncrasies to add to the group, Smith doing his best not to care about anyone and Valka being the tough as nails killer in the group.
Their trek takes them across dangerous terrain and they soon feel that they are lost. Setting out on his own to make certain they aren’t, Janusz finds the lake they have been searching for and their hopes rise. As they move along the lakeside path, they encounter a young woman named Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who asks to join them. Thinking she will just slow them down they deny her the chance, but she eventually does join.
Moving from the snow covered terrain to the warmer climate, the group continues to head south in hopes of finding the trans-Siberian train line. Once there they plan to cross over it and shortly find themselves in Mongolia where they think they will find freedom. Instead they find more difficulties and a reason to move ever forward heading towards the desert and almost certain death. And should they make that the next thing they will encounter will be the Himalayas.
The most amazing thing about this film is the fact that it is based on a true story. To watch and then realize this makes it all the more engrossing a film to watch and also a sadder one as well. With each step they take, with each encounter with the harshest items nature can toss their way, you wonder if you would have had the fortitude to do what these men did. You can call it a desire to live, a desire for freedom, stubbornness or just a will to live, but what they achieve is remarkable.
Directed by Peter Weir (who did MASTER AND COMMANDER, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, WITNESS and more), the film is placed in the hands of a master. He combines the story of the land and the harshness of it with the tale of men who bond beyond what most do. And at the same time he makes you realize that their hunger for freedom is one they will do anything to satisfy.
THE WAY BACK is not a happy go lucky film. It is brutal but not violent, gut wrenching but not gory, sad but filled with a happiness that comes from inside. It covers a wide spectrum of emotions. It also presents some amazing photography of natural scenes most of us are likely to never witness. But in the end it is an inspiring film and one that should be seen. Not backed by one of the major Hollywood studios, the film had a small release. The fact that it is available on DVD rectifies that situation. It gives those who didn’t have the opportunity to see the film before a chance to watch it and perhaps appreciate their own freedoms just a little bit more.