'The Way Back': A Harrowing Survival Tale That's Worth the Effort

The Oscar-nominated film tells the story of a 4,000-mile freedom trek from a Siberian gulag

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Big-screen survival tales don't get much more harrowing than The Way Back, an Oscar nominee (for its makeup) that never finished above the 15th spot at the stateside box office. It arrived this week on home video, grueling as ever, but worth the trip.

The film follows a group of escapees from a Siberian gulag on their "4,000-mile walk to freedom." It rations out little bits of hard luck and emotional backstory as it shuffles along, but it's not so much concerned with being sweeping or suspenseful as conveying the physical toll of the journey. The weather-beaten characters, their nerves frayed and their feet swollen, scavenge desperately for sustenance. Before the prison-camp break is even under way, one of the POWs can be seen slipping a piece of tree bark into his mouth, and prisoners trade pornographic sketches for scraps of food. As a rule, they don't exchange personal information. Their trek is heroic, but The Way Back portrays survival as inward-looking by nature, and in this sense the film is an unusual, in-grown sort of epic.

The film is directed by Peter Weir, with a script by him and Keith R. Clarke, adapted from a book called The Long Walk, the veracity of which has long been called into question (Weir and Clarke stop short of any problematic based-on-a-true-story pronouncements, but an opening dedication and a closing timeline perhaps too strongly suggest this is historical fact). The story centers on Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a kind, courageous Pole who gets shipped off to the frozen-over hell of Siberia as the Second World War rages. "Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy," says a guard in an early scene. Cue the howling wind and the battering snow. This is the most inclement weather imaginable, definitively depicted by Akira Kurosawa in the steppe-set Dersu Uzala (1975).

The enterprising Janusz hatches a plan with a number of other prisoners—including a wizened American (Ed Harris) and a fierce, knife-wielding Russian (Colin Farrell, going all in on the accent)—to flee the camp, and they do so in a snowstorm during a guard shift change. They manage to escape, but hunger plagues them: The men chase a pack of wolves away from a carcass only to feed on it themselves; there is later the obligatory tastes-like-chicken joke (one of the few moments of humor) as the men eat a poisonous-snake meat.

Near the mosquito-swarmed Lake Baikal, the escapees cross paths with a young girl (Saoirse Ronan), and then head for the Mongolian desert, rendered here as a disorienting no-man's-land, scorched and lifeless. Some, but not all, come out the other side, crossing over to China via the Great Wall, in a bit of earned wonder-of-the-world uplift. A coda places the foregoing dislocations and ordeals in the context of the Iron Curtain.

Weir's last film was 2003's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, an extraordinary seafaring epic, and probably also one of the finest mainstream films of the last decade. Before that, the filmmaker directed Mel Gibson in Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Harrison Ford in Witness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986), and Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998), with his most striking work probably remaining 1975's Picnic at Hanging Rock, an atmospheric period unsolved-mystery about the fin-de-siècle disappearance of several schoolgirls during a Valentine's Day field trip.

Weir's output has been varied—his résumé also includes a comedy (Green Card) and more crowd-pleasing boarding-school fare (Dead Poets Society). But the films that focus on people, primarily men, struggling to know or tame the landscape, or during wartime, futilely lay claim to it—Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, The Mosquito Coast, and Master and Commander—constitute the core of his filmography. The Way Back may not scale the heights of these earlier films, but it belongs alongside them—an uncompromising and assiduously grounded endurance test from one of the world's more interesting directors.

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Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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