The Way Back is an exhilarating film based on the memoirs of Slavomir Rawicz, a former prisoner in a Siberian gulag. Rawicz, who died in 2004, claimed to have escaped from the gulag during the Second World War and walked over 4,000 miles through the Gobi desert, Tibet and eventually over the Himalayas down into India.
The idea of this as a Hollywood blockbuster, with big names Colin Farrell and Ed Harris, filled me with eagerness but a modicum of scepticism. It would always be difficult intertwining the horror inflicted on so many by Stalin’s gulags with the unique story of one prisoner and yet at the same time avoiding the cringe-worthy schmaltz that Hollywood usually reserves for such films. But the film masterfully straddles this divide.
The Way Back is directed by Peter Weir, director of Dead Poets Society and Green Card. The scenery and cinematography – from the bleakness of Siberia to the sweltering heat of Gobi and the grandeur of the Himalayas – is outstanding. Throughout the film you are subjected to the feeling that you are following the group, all too closely, through the unflinching and stark environments around them. The characters played by Jim Sturgess, Harris and Farrell are particularly strong. Sturgess’s character, Janusz, based on Rawicz himself, originally plans to escape from the camp on his own, but is gradually joined by the five other enthusiastic prisoners.
Admirably, and unlike many Hollywood blockbusters, the film doesn’t parody Cold War paradigms about Stalinist Russia. Throughout the film the confusion and disillusionment of the characters with what they know they fought for after the revolution and what it has become are included in a subtle way.
One particularly striking part of the film is the relationship between Farrell’s character and the other escapees. The dark humour of Farrell’s Valka is reminiscent of the role he played in the exceptional black comedy, In Bruges. Valka, who praises Stalin throughout the film and has a tattoo of both Lenin and Stalin on his chest (to the great amusement of the other prisoners) at one point claims, “Stalin takes from the rich to give to the poor.” Another prisoner, the self-proclaimed comic of the group, retorts, “Yes, and then he puts both in the gulag.”
At another point Valka encourages the more reserved Janusz to rob from a small village. When Janusz refuses, Valka taunts, “You must have killed – you pray too much for an innocent man.” These moments of dark comedy complement the other moments of utter desperation. At one point we watch the prisoners eat wood and kneel to lick the remaining drops of water from a small puddle in the middle of the Gobi desert.
The uncertainty and originality we see throughout The Way Back is replicated in the real life story on which the film is based. In May 2009 Witold Glinski, a Polish Second World War veteran living in Britain, claimed that the story of Rawicz was true, but was actually an account of what happened to him. The controversy that has since surrounded the real story in no way detracts from the endurance and courage that the film portrays.
The Way Back is a unique and distinctive film, much like the personal story itself.