War is evil for many reasons, not the least of which is the way it forces people who are normally good, kind, and honorable to commit atrocities in an effort to survive. This is seen in many of the characters who populate the film The Way Back, which is about a group of WWII prisoners who manage to escape from Siberia to India on foot.
As the film begins, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a young Polish rebel, is being interrogated by the Russian police. Janusz’s tearful, tortured wife is brought in to testify against him, and he is sent to Siberia. There he meets a variety of prisoners, some incarcerated for political crimes and others for street crimes. The true criminals run the living quarters, and the guards run the work camps. Conditions are brutal, from the freezing cold to the forced labor to the squalid huts and meager food.
The most notorious prisons have always been guarded by nature more than by men. Devil’s Island, Alcatraz, and Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America were all known for their harsh surroundings that made successful escape virtually impossible. Siberia, the prisoners are told, is surrounded by “five million square miles of snow.” Nevertheless, Janusz and others are convinced that they can escape in the dead of winter with just the clothes on their backs and a sack full of food. Their motley group includes an artist named Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), a pastor named Khabarov (Mark Strong), an American named Smith (Ed Harris), a common street thug named Valka (Colin Farrell), and a sweet young boy named Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who hides the fact that he has been virtually blinded from his work in the mines. When Smith warns Janusz that not everyone will make it alive, Janusz responds, “They won’t all survive, but they will die free men.”
Each of these men harbors a secret sorrow that fills him with unspeakable regret for something he has done, as a result of the war, to a friend or family member. These private regrets drive them forward, seeking absolution or perhaps punishment for their actions. Janusz is driven by the determination to tell his wife he forgives her and release her from the self-loathing he knows she must feel for having informed against him.
The trek across 4,000 kilometers of snow and desert leads many of the men to a soul-cleansing sacrifice. This theme is personified in the portrayal of Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a girl they meet along the way. As they cross the Mongolian Desert, one of the men weaves for her a large wreath of bent twigs to protect her from the searing sun. The hat brings to mind the crown of thorns Christ wore during his trek toward Calvary. As they march across the desert, she leans heavily upon a wooden staff and falters several times, falling to her knees and then being helped up by the men. At one point, she lies on the sand and the hat falls behind her to reveal the soft blue scarf she wears beneath it. She looks up at them with the calm serenity of a Madonna and smiles a peaceful benediction at them. If more proof is needed that she is a combination Madonna and Christ figure, Irena even walks on water — well, she runs across a frozen river — and she gently washes Smith’s blistered feet when they find an oasis. These are small moments in the film, but they express one of the film’s major themes in a subtle and moving way.
The richly orchestrated original score by Burkhard von Dallwitz contributes to the emotion of the film and keeps most of the audience in its seat till the end of the credits, savoring the experience. The cinematography by Russell Boyd is also gorgeous, focusing on the grand landscapes of the desert, the Himalayas, and the starlit skies, as one would expect from a film produced by National Geographic. Some wide-angle scenes of the weary travelers are so perfectly composed that they give new meaning to the phrase “moving pictures.” These are literally photographs that move. Director Peter Weir adds to this impression by presenting each scene as a separate snapshot of the journey, without narrative transition. At times one almost feels that one is turning the pages of a photo album.
This does not distract, however, from the development of the characters and their story. When they start their journey, the men are almost like animals. They eat food that has been stomped into the earth; they lap water from muddy pools. Colin Farrell, as the Russian criminal Valka, paces like a lone wolf on the outskirts of the group. He is ruthless, unpredictable, and inhumanly willing to kill for survival. Smith only half jokingly calls Janusz’s kindness a “weakness” that he plans to exploit when he needs someone to carry him. At one point the men chase a pack of wolves away from a freshly killed animal, then fall onto the carcass themselves, tearing at the raw meat and elbowing one another out of the way in their frenzied hunger.
What does distract from the story somewhat is the difficulty of telling the characters apart. Covered by nondescript coats, hats, and even masks against both the blowing snow and the searing sun, the men all look very much alike. Their unfamiliar names and thick Russian or Polish accents, while adding to the sense of authenticity, also make it hard to tell them apart. But perhaps that is one of the points of the film — as they struggle to survive against the elements, they become a single unit.
The further the men journey from their physical prison, the more their sense of humanity returns, releasing them from their internal prisons. The symbolic transition from the darkness of the Siberian forest to the bright light of the desert is an impressive element of the film. The Way Back is not just a movie about traveling back home, but about finding a way back from the darkness of war to the light of human dignity and self-respect. It is truly a wonderful film.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as the entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.