Peter Weir’s The Way Back tells the story of a group of escapees from a 1940 Siberian gulag who walked across Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet and the Himalayas to freedom in British India, a journey of 12 months and 4,000 miles, and a journey that will bring into sharp focus the domitability of your own crappy spirit, particularly if you always take the bus two stops up the hill, as I do.
Peter Weir’s The Way Back tells the story of a group of escapees from a 1940 Siberian gulag who walked across Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet and the Himalayas to freedom in British India, a journey of 12 months and 4,000 miles, and a journey that will bring into sharp focus the domitability of your own crappy spirit, particularly if you always take the bus two stops up the hill, as I do. This is a vast epic and a sweeping epic and, by turns, both a harrowing and triumphant epic, but it never seemed that true. I went with it, sure enough. I went with it through the ferociously cold frozen forests and the scorching torment of the Gobi desert — never again, I’m telling you — but could never quite believe it. Peter Weir is a masterful director, but I wonder: did he?
The starting point for this film was the 1956 bestselling memoir by Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish army lieutenant who recounted the above story as his own but was discredited by a BBC investigation in 2006, after Weir had already started working on the script. However, it’s not entirely fictional as another Pole, Witold Glinski, then came forward to say it did happen to him, and Rawicz had appropriated his story. Weir now says the film was ‘inspired’ by Rawicz’s book, but the truth/fiction blur is a bugger. I can only say, although it may be rooted in the real, it often does not seem it.
Anyway, let’s get on with it. So, the film opens with our main Polish character, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), being interrogated by a Soviet officer who accuses him of espionage. Janusz refuses to confess to the false charges, but when his wife is tortured and informs against him — my dears, some scenes in this film put the very ‘harrow’ in ‘harrowing’ — Janusz is shipped off to the gulag. Knowing he will probably die anyway, particularly after he is transferred to work in the horrifyingly dangerous mines, he becomes hell-bent on escape, and teams up with a group of six fellow prisoners, including an American engineer (Ed Harris) and a ruthlessly violent Russian criminal, as played by Colin Farrell, who gives us his In Bruges character all over again, but with a thick Russian accent. It’s awfully hard to buy.
The first 20 minutes of the film are rather dull, as characters have to be established, and clumsy exposition must be clumsily exposited. This gives it a contrived feel, which may have been unavoidable — we do need to know who is who, after all — but it feels contrived all the same. Still, it does get going once the characters make a run for it, as they do during a snowstorm.
Their journey, geographically, is always stunning. The landscapes are vast, savage, incredible. The desert scenes are full-on Lawrence of Arabia, accompanied by spectacular sandstorms and mirages. Weir, whose previous films include Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli and The Truman Show, has opted for visual splendours over urgency — this is a long, slow slog — but does throw in a good amount of nasties. The Gobi sun all but burns faces off. Toes go gangrenous. Teeth rot. Along the way the group meet a teenage Polish orphan (Saoirse Ronan), whom they reluctantly allow to join their trek.
They survive how they can. They eat raw carcasses wrestled from wolves. They eat snake. They eat insects. They do not eat kangaroo cock, as that was Shaun Ryder on I’m a Celebrity, but you get my drift. There is tension; they may all make it but some may not. But it’s somehow never immersive. I did not find it too hard to endure, as I should have. I did not well up, when I should have. It’s the characters, I think. They are sketchy, and types. There’s the good one, the dangerous one, the sensitive, compassionate one, the jokey one, and so on. I had no reason to care. And their spiritual journeys are as predictable as they are pat.
As far as these films go — once I told you it was about a 4,000-mile trek to freedom, you knew exactly what sort of film it was, right? — this is probably as good as it gets, journey-wise, but it’s all voyage at the expense of the voyagers, so lacks any moral power. I think that’s what I’m trying to say. Plus, I may be just as interested in Rawicz. Why did he make that memoir up? How did he live with himself, having done so? Sometimes, the domitable human spirit can, I think, be as interesting as the indomitable one. I don’t always, by the way, take the bus two stops up the hill. Often, I take it just the one.