The Way Back
17th century writer Blaise Pascal once apologized for writing a particularly lengthy letter, offering the explanation that he didn’t have enough time to write a short one. The Way Back, the true story of seven men who escaped from a Soviet prison during World War II, is Peter Weir’s first film since 2003’s Master and Commander — yet it’s still about 20 minutes too long.
After his wife outs him as an anti-Communist spy to avoid torture, a Polish man played by Jim Sturgess (21, Across the Universe) is sentenced to a Siberian forced labor camp (think Cool Hand Luke with snow). The first image he sees upon entering camp are the looks on the faces of prisoners like Ed Harris and Colin Farrell. They might be telling him “welcome to hell; it’s colder than you would have expected.”
But using the plan of a less daring inmate (Mark Strong, Sherlock Holmes), Sturgess quickly organizes the least elaborate prison break in movie history: Trade your cigarettes and personal belongings to start saving food, wait until dark, cut a hole in the barbed wire fence, and somehow outrun the dogs. Shockingly (or maybe not so much since this is a movie), it works. And dogs, fittingly enough, are what the men must become while living on the land. At one point they scare a pack of wolves away from a carcass so they can vulture what is left of their meal.
Among the chosen seven is Harris as the wise old loaner-type, but Colin Farrell, as one of the convicted killers the Soviet guards used as an inside enforcer of sorts, is the real wildcard of the group. The opening titles tell us that only three of these men survive the entire 4,000 mile trek to freedom in India, so we basically know what to expect from here. In a sense we become a horror audience where we’re left guessing who will die next and how it might happen.
They do adopt a lone wanderer along the way, a sequence prolonged by the proverbial “but won’t she slow us down?” dilemma. Of course they’re going to take her in — her name (Saoirse Ronan of The Lovely Bones) is on the damn poster!
The film boasts exceptional acting across the board, particularly from the wily Farrell who once again affirms himself as a master of accents, although subtitles may have aided the understanding of a few of his lines. The group faces every imaginable physical hardship. From blistering cold to swarms of mosquitoes to desert sandstorms, the Oscar-nominated makeup weathers them accordingly.
The film was based on the aptly titled “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz, the factuality of which has been seriously challenged. Weir achieves the “epic” feel he’s clearly going for with exquisitely shot landscapes worthy of a David Lean spectacle, but this film could have been a masterpiece had he streamlined it by cutting a few passages of tedious walking.