There is something inherently human about not giving up in the face of terrible odds. For some reason far beyond my capability of explanation, human beings simply won’t give up and will try to fight until the very end. So when a person encounters great difficulties and dangers, the person must overcome said dangers, and there is a conflict that emerges. And conflict is the essence of all drama and almost all storytelling really. And perhaps that’s what is so inherently interesting about films or stories about survival, because we want to know how this person or group of people will survive, if at all. And for me, that is the appeal of Peter Weir’s (as of this writing) most recent film The Way Back from 2010.
The film is about a group of Gulag prisoners who during World War II escape from their prison and take on a 4,000 mile journey south to India. On their journey they encounter many hardships and various different climates as each of them struggle to find the will to push on and survive. The group is led by a Polish prisoner-of-war (Jim Sturgess), and includes other colorful characters such as a mysterious American simply named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), a violent Russian gambler named Valka (Colin Farrell), a frightened Polish girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan) and a former Latvian priest named Andrejs (Gustaf Skarsgård).
The film is a true story, but at the same time it’s not. Although the film says it’s inspired by true events, Weir has acknowledged that he and co-writer Keith Clarke fictionalized the story the film is based on (a supposed memoir called The Long Walk by Polish prisoner-of-war Slawomir Rawicz) since there is considerable debate regarding the truth of Rawicz’ accounts. Nevertheless, Weir and his researchers found enough evidence to prove that an escape had taken place and a walk to India from Siberia had taken place, so Weir decided to take on the project, true or not true.
It’s not hard to see how Weir could fall in love with a story like this, whether it’s true or not. It’s an epic yet very intimate story about a group of characters who are simply trying to survive during these extreme environments and situations. It’s about human beings being resilient and not giving up in the face of great danger, and it’s an unconventional survival story where the threat isn’t the prison guards but rather nature is our enemy and how we humans adapt to these dire situations.
The storytelling in the film is very minimalistic, and the characters are first introduced very briefly, with only Janusz being the one with a backstory we know of in the beginning. He dreams of coming home to his wife in Poland, and this serves as his driving force throughout the film. I believe Sturgess does a fine job in the lead, although some would say he is a little bland but I disagree. He displays the right amount of naivete and persistence and good intentions to be likeable and interesting. The other supporting actors also get their moments to shine. Harris and Ronan are as solid as ever as the mysterious yet experienced Mr. Smith and the young and innocent Irena respectively. The two of them form a father-daughter relationship throughout the film and they’re engaging to watch. But the real standout and scene-stealer in the film is Colin Farrell as Valka. Farrell is charismatic and mysterious enough to keep you interest in him, and the film never dips into clichés by turning him into some cartoonish villain which he easily could’ve been. Throughout the film, what keeps these characters alive through these hardships in the wilderness is their shared bond and their tragic pasts, all of which are revealed more and more as the film gradually moves along.
The film is visually gorgeous, shot by Weir’s usual collaborator from Australia Russell Boyd who also shot Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Master and Commander (for which Boyd won an Oscar). The are some truly jaw-dropping locations that Boyd captures with the 2:35:1 frame that truly gives the viewer a sense of the rugged terrain that engulfs the characters and makes it easier for us to root for them. The combination of the small character drama in this enormous landscape brings to mind the epics of Sir David Lean, whom Weir credits as a major influence.
Ultimately for me, The Way Back is a very human film about our experiences and how that affects us, with the importance of hope and memories and stories being of major significance to our existence.
Also as a final note; Peter Weir please make another film. Thank you!