I have just spent the best part of my afternoon watching the 2010 Peter Weir movie The Way Back, and a might fine way to spend my time it was.
The movie is two hours and a quarter, but does not drag, and has a wonderful cast.
The Way Back chronicles the journey of a group of escaped gulag prisoners, from Siberia to India, in 1941.
The story is inspired by actual events, and is highly on topic here on Karavansara.
There is a book, called The Long Walk, published in 1956 by Polish officer and former Gulag prisoner Sławomir Rawicz. The book was apparently ghost-written, and later its truthfulness was contested.
The movie follows closely the book, but as it was impossible to determine how much of the source material was based on fact and how much of it was fiction, character names were changed, and the movie is presented as “inspired by true events”.
For a fact, the British Secret Service, in Calcutta, did debrief in 1942 three men that had come on foot through the Himalayas, and claimed to be fugitives from a Siberian gulag. So, basically, we know somebody did the 4000 miles walk from Siberia to India, but we can’t say for sure who it was, and if things really went like in the 1956 book, therefore let’s treat it like fiction.
And a very good fiction it is.
The story is as simple and as linear as geography: six men, later joined by a very young woman, crossing a continent on foot.
The cast in excellent, but sort of takes second place to the landscapes, that are absolutely impressive (the movie comes with a National Geographic badge).
Indeed, the movie can be split in two parts.
Before the crossing of the Russian border, we get to know the characters, and take note of their interactions. The landscape is mostly forests and the shores of Lake Baikal, and the frame is tight and brackets the actors nicely.
But as soon as the Mongolian border is crossed, the landscape takes center stage, with wide panoramic shots of vast empty stretches of desert, of forbidding mountain ranges.
And if in the first part the main challenge is evade pursuers, dodge guards and avoid human contact, in the second part the absence of people becomes the main source of drama.
The fugitives must face thirst, hunger and extreme conditions, and at the same time are completely alone.
The movie is clearly not too kind with the Stalinist regime, and indeed the last few minutes, chronicling the rise and fall of USSR, are both dramatic but also, maybe, a little heavy-handed.
But still, apart from those last moments – that do have a reason in the economy of the story – The Way Back does not clobber the viewer with its (justified) political criticism, and can be enjoyed as a big adventure movie.
Some critics have apparently found the character not very engaging, and the movie “cold” – and yet this is a choice, I think, that was taken willingly to convey the sense of abandonment and loss of the characters.
And while it can be hard to feel for them, it is quite easy to empathize with their predicament.