Based on true events, The Way Back follows a group of men who, to escape the tyrannical regime at war with the allies in the second world war, embark on a 4,000 mile walk from their Siberian prison to seek freedom in India. Beginning with the tearful confession of Jim Sturgess’s Janusz’s wife the film focuses on his experiences. After travelling with him to the concentration camp-esque gulag, we are fed many of the film’s key themes by one of the prison’s intimidating officers, with notable cencepts centring around the idea that nature is the prisoner’s ultimate jail as well as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris)’s advice; ‘Kindness. That can kill you here’.
With The Way Back, director Peter Weir provides a bleak comment on the harrowing lives led by the prisoners of world war two. Lesser known than those in the German and Japanese camps, the lives explored here are made all the more distressing. The Way Back is not a subtle film by any means. Openly displaying the truths spoken and experienced by the characters, it succinctly captures the fates most of them expected to endure.
The planned escape is far from meticulous and its panicked execution heightens the fear portrayed by the group. The journey proves to be more perilous than any of them could have imagined and requires a bravery that few of them initially seem to possess. Endless injuries and ailments plague them whilst the sheer might of nature means that not all of them survive the length of the film. In the middle of their journey they are confronted with an unexpected quandary in the form of Saoirse Ronan’s Irena. She soon appears to be an asset to the group, even if Mr. Smith is uncomfortable with her presence.
The trouble with period pieces set in other countries is that, inevitably, Brit and American actors often have to don unfamiliar accents which often leads to disastrous outcomes. Thankfully the cast are nigh-on flawless, with special credit being due to Ronan’s efforts. Colin Farrell’s Valka is not only hugely believable but the friction he creates in the group provides a sinister internal edge to the journeyers whilst Sturgess’s role provides the film with a empathic lead.
The men (and girl) face very real basic worries of getting lost and running out of water. With their trek taking them across frozen landscapes as well as never-ending deserts they, as a group, inevitably suffer deaths. Despite their torturing predicament and frayed optimism, their human spirit perseveres. The obligatory specks-on-the-horizon shots are sweeping and help enforce the sense of isolation they suffer and, with the two hour run time, you sometimes feel like you’re enduring their journey with them.
As predicted early on, nature is the ultimate villain of the piece. The inhabitable conditions the men are endlessly confronted with are unrelenting and test not only their physical strength, but their mental strength too. Unlike many other historical movies, The Way Back shies away from becoming a buddy movie as Valka’s presence reminds us. The men have been alienated from their homes and thus lack the trust to confide their inner secrets to each other.
With hopes of still sounding tactful, the film, like Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, makes you thankful for plumbing and taps. The film’s finale, although rather out of place, adds a sentimental tone to the otherwise distressing watch. The surviving men ultimately become fathers and brothers as well as survivors and it is this development that makes for compelling viewing.
Best bit: The moment they find water in the desert provides tangible relief and enjoyment.
Most harrowing moment: Despite the innumerable deaths and injuries, its the losing a tooth that got to us most.