The Way Back Reviews
If only the beginning title cards didn't give away the end of the film, I might have thought it more suspenseful and compelling. As it is, I could guess the ending easily, and the film lost its luster for me. Additionally, it is affected by Lord of the Rings syndrome: the mistaken belief that beautiful shots of people walking makes for compelling cinema. Peter Weir, whose films all include the plights of common people against repressive politics, should have taken some notes from Danny Boyle, whose 127 Hours made a guy stuck under a rock more compelling than this peripatetic film.
But if you look at a map and trace the incredible distance these people traveled, you can understand why the story is so incredible. The characters are certainly courageous and admirable, and the performances by the cast - even by the insufferable Colin Farrell - are all up to par.
Overall, it's a compelling idea with compelling characters, but the film lacks a stylistic flair to keep it interesting.
These guys escaped from a Russian concentration camp, after a year of grueling labor, with just a little bit of bread (regular, not the magically filling lembas variety), a knife and an general assumption of where they might be, and how they might get there. That and these guys actually did this.
They walked 4000 miles starting in one of the remotest place in Siberia and finished their journey by crossing the Himalaya's, on foot. I'm never complaining about walking anywhere ever again.
Oh and before you get all angry panda that I spoiled the ending, they tell you that some people escaped in the opening seconds of the movie. They just don't tell you who survives (and neither will I).
The story is alleged to be based on real events, but this has been disputed, and it has been revelaed that the film's events are essentially fiction. Even though it sucks that this isn't really true, it's still a really compelling story, which is that of a group who escape a Siberian gulag prison camp in 1940 and make their way (by foot) all the way to India 4,00 mailes away, as they see it as the best place to escape to (though not initially so).
In essence, this is just a classic survival story that pushes the man versus nature trope to the max. These characters go through all sorts of hell across all kinds of unforgiving terrain. The film is a little underwhelming in the sense that it's a little emotionally vacant, the characters aren't developed as much as they could be, and there's no real deep conflict at hand besides survivng the elements. While that's all a little disappointing considering that it means the film is 133 minutes (with almost all of it being the characters walking), it's extremely well done, and it looks gorgeous.
Technically speaking, this is a very superb film. The cinematography is top notch, and Weir and his DP know where to set the lens and frma stuff just right. The makeup effects are also quite excellent, showing in detail the effects of sunstroke, extreme dehydration, hordes of mosquitos, and, let's not forget, the effects of freezing cold. Even though I did mention the lack of real conflict, the performances of the multicultural cast (playing multicultural characters) are all pretty good. Sturgess and Harris were good, but my favorites were the two performers representing Ireland: Ronan and Farrell.
Since this is a survival story, one thing I liked and appreciated were some of the cool details about how the characters survived, such as the cool snow masks they make out of bark, and their sheer will to plow on despite increasingly ragged clothing.
This film marked the end of a 12 year absence of Peter Weir, with his most recent film before this being Master and Commander. Though this isn't a masterpiece, it's good to see him make a return, and even better to see that he hasn't totally lost his touchc. Hopefully he won't let so much time pass between this and his next one, because God only knows that no one can make a film quite like him.
Director: Peter Weir
Summary: After narrowly escaping from a wretched World War II Siberian labor camp, a small band of multinational soldiers desperately undertakes a harrowing journey to traverse Siberia, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas on foot.
My Thoughts: "A beautifully shot movie about a journey to freedom. The actors are really good in the film. As they travel you get to know them a bit and root for them all even knowing some will not survive. The obstacles they had to over come on their journey is admirable. If not for their strong will to survive, I think most would have turned and went back or given up and died. The chemistry between the character's seems so natural. They truly care for one another and refuse to leave anyone behind. It's a beautifully done film of inspiring character's. Their survival of their journey was truly a miracle and I'm in awe of their strength and will. The film should be seen."
In 1940, seven prisoners escape from the confines of a Russian gulag in Siberia, and set out on a gruelling, 4,500-mile trek across some of the world's harshest terrain, with little food and few supplies. Their efforts are almost certainly doomed, yet they would rather die as free men than Stalin's prisoners.
With "Master and Commander" Peter Weir last helmed the camera in the water. With this, he is very much on dry land but unfortunately his results are much the same. This is a real bore-fest. What we get are lots of weather beaten skin and ground beaten feet. The occasional bout of starvation is thrown in and that's pretty much the jist of the whole film. But ultimately, we the audience, are starved of anything that resembles substance. Fortunately we get a few crumbs tossed our way with some gorgeous scenery by cinematographer Russell Boyd. There's no doubt that this looks fantastic but it's not enough. Not nearly enough. The film is as long and arduos as the supposed journey. The characters are interesting, most notably Colin Farrell's thief Valka, but he leaves the film far too soon and the likes of Ed Harris and especially Saoirse Ronan have very little to do. There's no faulting the performances, the actors do what they can with the limited material which is flimsy and seriously underwritten. In fact, it was exposed as being based on a complete lie and not the true adventure it had been labeled as. Not a good start...not a good middle and not a good end either. The only thing it had in it's favour was the wonderful scenery, but then again, with a film that is backed by National Geographic, you expect that certain standard.
A real disapointment from director Peter Weir. I have come to expect more from him. It will appeal as a travelogue maybe, but as a form of entertainment, it has about as much appeal as looking at someone else's holiday snaps.
Loosely based on a true story, the movie follows the group from their escape from a Soviet gulag in Siberia, through the Gobi Desert and across the Himalayas...all on foot. It's was an incredibly perilous journey, and many of the characters do not make it to the end. Hunger, exposure, exhaustion, and dehydration were the almost constant companions of the group, and they took their toll.
The great cast (including Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, and Mark Strong) really makes you care about the slowly bonding group as they travel mile after mile through harsh conditions and dangerous environments. The Way Back may not have the thrills of an action blockbuster, but it kept my interest throughout. A good movie about a very interesting subject.
Siberian gulag escapees walk 4000 miles overland to freedom in India.
In 1941, seven assorted inmates of a Siberian prison camp escape, pick up a teenage girl on the way, and walk 4,000 miles to freedom in India (well, some of them). This true life story is a straightforward piece of work, and stands primarily on the drama inherent in the journey and the hardships suffered by the escapees. As well as its strength this is also its weakness, because it never really draws all members of the fellowship as strongly as they deserve to be drawn. One is left with memories of Ed Harris as the pessimistic American and Saoirse Ronan as orphan Irena as the dominant personalities. Colin Farrell is Colin Farrell, and Mark Strong makes a short appearance. As for the others - by the time you have sorted out who is who, and they have individually started to make impressions, the movie is over. But it is a gripping movie where you are constantly amazed at how inhospitable this planet can be, and how resilient people can be in challenging the worst life can throw at them. And this film, too, contains one of those magic moments to treasure - a masterclass in dialogue-free acting from Harris, lasting no more than a few seconds, after Ronan has washed his damaged foot.
Their escape was just the beginning
During WWII Janusz(Jim Sturgess), young Polish officer held by Soviets as POW, is interrogated by NKVD (Stalinist secret security police). When Russians cannot force him to admit he is a spy, they bring his wife and extort from her a statement condemning Janusz. As a result he is sentenced to 20 years in one of the Gulag forced labour camps deep in Siberia.
At the camp , Janusz meets an American Mr Smith(Ed Harris), an actor Khabarov(Mark Strong), a hardened Russian criminal Valka(Colin Farrell), Polish artist Tomasz(Alexandru Potocean), a Latvian priest Voss(Gustaf Skarsgård), a Pole suffering from night blindness Kazik(Sebastian Urzendowsky), and an accountant from Yugoslavia Zoran(Dragos Bucur). Khabarov secretly tells Janusz that he is planing to escape south to Mongolia, passing Lake Baikal. It turns out that it's just Khabarov's fantasy in order to keep his own morale high, but Janusz decides to implement the plan. He runs away with Mr Smith, Valka, Voss, Tomasz, Zoran, and Kazik during a severe snowstorm in order to cover their tracks.
During a second night of their escape Kazik freezes to death after loosing his way to the fireplace while looking for wood and is later buried but the group. After many days of travel across the snows of Siberia they reach Lake Baikal. There they meet Polish girl Irena(Saoirse Ronan), who tells them a story of her parents being murdered by Russian soldiers, and her escape from a collective farm near Warsaw. Not all the details of her explanation how she ended up so far away from Europe check out (e.g. Warsaw is still under German occupation), but it turns out that she tried to conceal some more tragic experience. The group let's her join their quest.
When they reach an unpatrolled border between Russia and Mongolia Valka decides to stay, as he still sees Russia as his home country, and Josef Stalin as a hero. The rest continue to Ulaanbaatar, but soon they see images of Stalin and a red star. As it becomes clear that they will not be safe in Mongolia which is now also a Communist state, they realize that India is the closest refuge for them. As they continue south, across the Gobi desert, lack of water, sandstorms, skin burned to red-flesh, blisters and sun strokes weaken the group. Irena collapses several times and soon dies. The next to die is Tomasz. Smith seems on a verge of death to, but motivated by Janusz rejoins remaining Zoran and Voss and soon all four find a small stream of water and avoid dehydration.
While getting close to Himalayas they are guided to a Buddhist monastery, where they regain their strength. Smith decides to go to Lhasa from there to join American military mission fighting next to Chinese against Japan. The other three continue towards the Himalayas and they soon reach India.
At the end of the film Janusz finally reunites with his wife half a century later. For all those years he wanted to see his wife again so he could forgive her and she could thereby forgive herself.
Although towards the end of movie it feels like some one was in a real rush to pack everything up. Movie makers went to so much details in showing the trek from Siberia to Tibet, but when finally the time for the toughest part of their journey, through Himalayas came, everything was wrapped up and in the blink of an eye, the end credits were rolling.