Review: ‘The Way Back’ more than a survival story |

Review: ‘The Way Back’ more than a survival story

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photo"The Way Back" shows Friday through Sunday, May 29, at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.

By the time the escapees from a Soviet gulag either perish or make it out with their lives in “The Way Back” (I’m not giving away the ending just yet), they will have a list of plagues that includes, but is not limited to, dehydration, freezing temperatures, potentially hostile villagers, a sandstorm, hunger, burning temperatures, not knowing which way to go, internecine strife, a knife and swarms of mosquitoes. The film, directed by Australian Peter Weir (“Dead Poets Society,” “Witness,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”), lasts just two hours, so given how many catastrophes are packed into the story, there isn’t much room for humor.

Nevertheless, Weir manages to drop a wry laugh into the story. When the group hears a sound in the woods, coming from a close distance, one tells the rest not to worry: “It’s wolves. Only wolves.”

“The Way Back” begins on an intensely grim note. The scene is a Siberian gulag during World War II, which provides only slightly more material comfort than the road ahead. The prisoners already have a taste of starvation, deprivation and bitter cold. The cinematography, by Russell Boyd, is magnificent, capturing the frost in dark grays, blues and greens.

Out of the prison, a handful of personalities begin to stand out, and we are made to understand that we should get used to them. These are the men – most prominently, a Russian common thug (Colin Farrell), a hard-nosed American (Ed Harris) and a wisecracking Polish accountant (Jim Sturgess) – who are going to find some way to break out of the gulag, and … .

And what, exactly? This is another quasi-humorous moment. The prisoners – seven of them to begin with – figure out a method of breaking through the barbed wire fence, and the Soviet soldiers in charge of the gulag furiously give chase with a team of dogs. The bleakly comic question is, why the anguish? It’s winter in Siberia, the escapees have a few thousand miles to go – that’s a literal few thousand – before they get to freedom. There are few villages along the route, and the villagers they might encounter are more likely to turn them over to the Soviet military than to provide succor.

As the former prisoners set out, they grapple with one of the usual moral dilemmas of any such adventure: At what point do you give up on individual members who are threatening the prospects for the entire group? They also throw in a bit of anti-Soviet grumbling, and a good bit of in-fighting – especially involving Farrell’s Valka, a near-sociopath with tattoos of Stalin and Lenin on his chest and a knife constantly at the ready.

The great bulk of the film, however, is given over to the simple quest for survival, and in this, “The Way Back” becomes an epic, often gorgeous, never quite emotionally riveting, man-versus-nature adventure story. The film’s greatest strength is its scope: Over their 4,000-mile route, the escapees cross through woods, desert, lakes and the Himalayas, giving them the widest range of terrain-related challenges imaginable. With all the changing scenery, boredom never becomes a worry.

In a closing scene, what’s left of the group is met, on a high mountain pass, by an Indian leader whose first request is to see their passports. (Another good laugh.) When they inform him they have no papers, the Indian instantly breaks into a warm smile and tells them not to fear, they are now in a safe, free land.

Turns out the most serious deprivation of all was fascism, a point driven home by a historical montage of World War II moments tacked onto the end.

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