The Way Back

Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and Colin Farrell on a very long walk


If you're going to base a movie on an amazing true story, it would seem essential that the amazing story actually be true. This is unfortunately not the case with The Way Back. Not entirely, anyway. The picture is drawn from a 1956 book by Slawomir Rawicz, a Polish army officer who claimed to have escaped from a Soviet labor camp in 1940, along with six fellow prisoners, and walked 4000 miles to freedom through Mongolia and Tibet and over the Himalayas to British India. Subsequent research has indicated that while Rawicz was a prisoner in a Siberian camp, he never took part in the hellacious trek his book describes. On the other hand, it does appear possible that another group of escapees did make this amazing journey, and that Rawicz, who died in 2004, might simply have been recounting their ordeal.

In the film's production notes, director Peter Weir acknowledges the ambiguity of this tale, but says that while Rawicz's book may not be completely true, it is probably accurate in its harrowing details, and in any case constitutes a great adventure. I think we can accept this reasoning. And the movie, which is very well-made, has much to recommend it. Working with cinematographer Russell Boyd (who also shot Weir's Master and Commander and The Year of Living Dangerously), the director leads us through some extraordinary environments, from the frozen forests of Siberia (actually Bulgaria) to the vast parched expanse of the Gobi Desert (actually Morocco). He also draws fine performances from the stars portraying three of the fugitives. The young English actor Jim Sturgess, playing Janusz, the Rawicz character, carries much of the film with a sweet, unwavering confidence; Ed Harris, as an American caught up in the Soviet nightmare, is appropriately skeletal and emotionally conflicted; and Colin Farrell—stubbly, feral and heavily tattooed—is entirely persuasive as an imprisoned Russian gangster the other fugitives bring along on their great escape, mainly because he owns a knife.

But the movie's tone is inescapably grim and grueling—at more than two hours in length it's also an ordeal for the audience. And since we're told at the outset that four of the men do make it to India, suspense is minimal. What we have instead is a long procession of set-piece sequences of deprivation and duress. The opening passages in the Siberian camp are vividly horrific—we see prisoners worked literally to death felling trees and laboring in mines, with little clothing to protect them from the near-Arctic temperatures, and even less food to sustain them. And once Janusz and his companions make their escape, in the middle of a furious blizzard, their desperation only increases. We see them cutting bark from trees for sustenance, eating worms and lizards, and sucking on cool stones and devouring snakes to alleviate their constant thirst. Fortunately, a runaway orphan named Lena (Saoirse Ronan, of The Lovely Bones), eventually joins the group on their journey, and her appearance briefly warms the story like a beam of sunlight, especially in her interaction with Harris' chilly American, who comes to see her as a surrogate daughter. (The lack of sexual menace when Lena arrives is a blessing, but the lack of even sexual tension seems odd. The director declines to explore the situation.)

Peter Weir is famous for his unhurried particularity in selecting projects: Master and Commander, his last film, was released in 2003; the one before that, The Truman Show, came out in 1998. His commitment to this story is admirable, as is his determination not to cheapen it with stock adventure-movie thrills. But the effect of so much unalloyed misery is exhausting. By the time Janusz and his three fellow survivors finally arrive in warm and welcoming India, our relief exceeds their own. 

Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.

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  1. Here to serve you since 194! Bitches!

    TYPOS are fun!

    1. I guess that must have been a Roman slave labor camp.

  2. I’m glad Peter Weir is directing the movie – done some good decently anti-authoritarian movies over the years – Gallipoli first and foremost, DPS, Truman Show, etc. and I thought Master and Commander was a bad ass adaptation of a bad ass novel…

  3. I liked the ‘Year of Living Dangerously’ but that was pre-nutjob Mel. Weir is good – didn’t he also do ‘Gallipoli’ with pre-nutjob Mel?

    Good for Reason doing movie reviews. I saw ‘Black Swan’ this past weekend and recommend anything with Natalie in it.

    Especially when clam-diving is involved.

    1. Gallipoli is fucking epic – the end gets me EVERY time:



      Movie Turk’s Machine Gun: *RATATAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT etc.*


      1. Oh man, that scene gets me every time. Epic indeed.

      2. Agreed – just saw it again first time in 12+ years – definitely moved up my list of favorite heart breaking movies and anti-war movies cause the majority of the time is spent building up the characters into people you really fall for with really quite minimal battle / war scenes which makes it’s message more effective.

  4. I liked the ‘Year of Living Dangerously’ but that was pre-nutjob Mel. Weir is good – didn’t he also do ‘Gallipoli’ with pre-nutjob Mel?

    Good for Reason doing movie reviews. I saw ‘Black Swan’ this past weekend and recommend anything with Natalie in it.

    Especially when clam-diving is involved.

    1. Year of Living Dangerously was definitely good.

      I must get around to watching The Cars That Ate Paris and The Mosquito Coast some day.

      Picnic at Hanging Rock was not for me …

      1. I liked Picnic and the Last Wave.

        Also, Witness has some of the best nonverbal acting/use of the eyes without dialogue I can think of: particularly between the Amish kid and Harrison Ford and Ford and the mother. I don’t think of Ford as a great actor so the credit must go to Weir for that.

        1. Oh, ‘Witness’ is great!

          Forgot about that one. This asshole atheist got all choked up when the barn-building scene flowered.

        2. Last Wave was pretty good. Both I and my then girlfriend fell asleep during Picnic at Hanging Rock though.

      2. The Mosquito Coast was fantastic. For a kid who devoured everything Star Wars it was the first time in my young life I saw Harrison Ford as something other than Han Solo (even Raiders was just “Han becomes an archaeologist” as far as I was concerned). So kudos to Weir for making that happen.

  5. The Cars That Ate Paris – what the hell is that?

    Off to IMDB.

  6. I’ve read “The Long Walk”. It’s gripping (even when you know it isn’t true). Take the movie for what it is, fiction, and it should be great stuff (also, a great anti-communist message).

  7. I don’t try to act like I have reason. Why are you trying to be a movie critic?

  8. Do you really think there is a way back? I sure dont.

    1. Damn, I thought this was a movie about Peabody & Sherman…

  9. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.

  10. “and walked 4000 miles to freedom through Mongolia and Tibet and over the Himalayas to British India.”

    Weren’t they free as soon as they made it to Mongolia?

    1. Mongolia was a Soviet ally.

    2. If you call that freedom….

      But no, actually Mongolia was Soviet controlled, too.

      1. Except where the Japanese were in charge.

  11. i’d say there wasn’t sexual tension when the girl arrived because the men were broken by thirst and hunger.

    1. You know the movie’s not going to focus on sexual tension when the conflict presents itself as a dialogue that goes something like this: Actor holds up one hand, says, “Eat the worm?” then holds up the other and says “beat and rape the girl?” then eats the worm.

  12. I have a boner.

  13. The female character (played by the wonderful Saoirse Ronan) isn’t called Lena — it’s Irena!

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  15. Do you really think there is a way back? I sure dont.And I deemed guide and Commander was naturally a lousy ass adaptation within the lousy ass novel…

  16. This plan has no merit

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