A group of prisoners in a Siberian Gulag walk to a different subcontinent to get free from the U.S.S.R. in The Way Back, a crazy bubbling cauldron of languages, places and World War II history where luckily for us everyone eventually ends up speaking English.
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is a Polish soldier who is imprisoned not by the Germans but by the Soviet Army that, thanks to the Soviet-Nazi nonaggression pact, also invaded Poland in September 1939. It is actually Janusz’s wife, who is tortured to provide evidence against him of his anti-communist leanings, who gets him sent to Siberia (thus providing Janusz’s character with motivation later on — he must return to Poland to forgive his wife). Certain that the gulag will be the death of him, Janusz decides to escape and, through a bunch of hasty plot contrivances, is joined by a gang of other men, the most memorable of whom are Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell) and mysterious American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris). As the men walk through the Siberian wilderness, they pick up another gulag escapee — the Russian or maybe Polish Irena (Saoirse Ronan). They are heading for Mongolia but then discover that the communists hold sway there too, so they head to Tibet, where they hope to cross the Himalayas into India. Not only do they not want to be caught by the communists, they have to be careful not to go anywhere allied with the Germans either. So they walk, mostly staying away from towns and villages, through the pine- and wolf-filled wildernesses of Siberia and then around the shore of a massive lake and then through countryside and then into Mongolia, where they quickly end up in the desert, and then into mountains and then Tibet and then the Himalayas. Our heroes didn’t really have the opportunity to pack for their trip, but between blizzardy mountains and the searing heat of a sandy desert it would have been difficult to know what to bring even if they had a Sports Authority of outerwear at their disposal.
With hints of Seven Years in Tibet and The Great Escape and Defiance, The Way Back feels very familiar, like you’re watching some movie from 15 years ago that you’d forgotten about. It isn’t innovative or particularly arresting in any way — nobody cuts their arm off or plays any recognizable historical characters — but it is a solid story. You get men suffering from hunger and fear and thirst while also occasionally wondering about each other’s motivations — it’s Survivor: Gobi Desert, but far more low-key than any reality show has ever been. Though the movie starts out at a specific time and place in history, it comes to seem almost timeless, with man fighting the elements in the same way he’d have done 50 years earlier or 50 years later. The movie stops being about World War II to such a degree that when a series of title cards wraps up the story of not just the war but the entirety of the Cold War, you almost forget why it’s necessary. Oh, right, you think, the character motivations. And even that part of the story is hastily resolved. The journey — dusty, difficult and well portrayed — is what makes this movie entertaining.
Rated PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language. Directed by Peter Weir and written by Keith R. Clarke and Peter Weir (from the book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz), The Way Back is two hours and 13 minutes long and is distributed by Newmarket Films.