Way Back, The

A Grand Deception

Main Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan

Director: Peter Weir

I was excited to see The Way Back from the minute I saw the trailer.  I know, trailers can be misleading, but this one showed me what I needed to know – Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Jim Sturgess.  Great actors all and two of the three I count among my favorites.  Toss in Peter Weir as director and I’m sold.  I’m sad to have missed it on the big screen, but it was here and gone in the blink of an eye.  Having now seen it, I understand.

The premise is this: a group of men is interred in a Soviet gulag in the 1940s. They escape and walk to safety.  Fine, there’s a little more to it than that, but the title card that opens the movie tells us that three men walked into India in 1941 having walked from Siberia and that this is their story.  The tale, as is so often the case, is in the journey.

We enter the story as Janusz (Sturgess), a Pole, is being sent to the gulag based on the testimony of his tortured wife.  Once there he becomes familiar with the workings within and around the camp and determines that he must escape or die there.  He is joined by Mr. Smith (Harris) a surly but knowledgeable American, Valka (Farrell), a Russian career criminal and several others.  The commanders of the camp count on the harsh terrain to contain the prisoners and the group escapes into a blinding blizzard.  Over the course of more than a year they will be faced with countless obstacles in their search for freedom.

The first and most staggering aspect of The Way Back is the cinematography – this is a beautiful film.  I do wish I had seen it on a big screen for the scenery – from blizzards to vast deserts, unforgiving mountains and lush valleys it is all stunning.  In one of the DVD extras we learn more about the places the movie was filmed and the actors’ experiences with these extremes of nature.  Ed Harris, in particular, seems to have been greatly affected by the magnitude of the physical world surrounding them in almost every locale.  Director Weir wasn’t able to film in each locale portrayed due to political considerations but was able to find climatically suitable replacements and the result is fabulous.  The attention to detail given to every setting, from the built-from-scratch gulag to the lush Indian village, in The Way Back is truly amazing and shows in the final product.

The actors are also ridiculously good.  Particular stand-outs are Jim Sturgess as Janusz who carries the bulk of the film as the leader of the group, Saoirse Ronan who joins the group part way into the journey and Gustaf Skarsgard as Voss, an internally tortured Latvian priest who helps the group remember its humanity on more than one occasion.  And of course there’s Harris.  The veteran actor of the group and also the most enigmatic character.  Even in the DVD extras you can see that he’s different from the rest of the cast, older, more in tune with the story and the setting, more of a method actor than the rest.  He completely inhabits his Mr. Smith and watching him really become part of the group is rewarding in a special way that isn’t part of the script – it’s all Harris and Weir letting him play this man his own way.  It’s marvelous.

I also enjoyed The Way Back in a way that only a true nerd can – with an atlas in front of me so I could figure out where the group was at any given time.  Finding the named landmarks and trying to figure out their route was great fun.  National Geographic made this movie and taking the time to enjoy it from that sort of perspective is one of the benefits of watching it in your own home.

It sounds great but in the end I was sadly disappointed in The Way Back.  How can that be?  I loved the actors, the visuals, even the opportunity to flex my nerd muscles.  Sadly, it’s a lie.  The book upon which the movie is based has been debunked as fraud and there’s a disclaimer at the end of the film declaring it to be a work of fiction.  So this grand journey, this remarkable, against all odds walk that covered thousands of miles, didn’t happen.  That, my friends, makes it significantly less remarkable.  I feel lied to by that first title card, the one proclaiming that in 1941 three men entered India having walked from Siberia and that the film is dedicated to them.  Dedicated to who?  The author of the book who didn’t do it?  A subsequent claimer of the story who also has been proven a fraud?  I admire all of the people who made this move, but I do not admire whoever made the decision to mislead the audience with the notion that it’s all true only to proclaim it fiction in the credits.

The Way Back is the kind of movie that makes me ineffably sad.   It’s such a grand journey, such a lovely story and filled with great performances.  But it’s based on a lie.  Presenting it as other than fiction at the outset is dishonest and sets the viewer up for such a letdown at the end.  If only the filmmakers had simply been honest from the outset perhaps I could have taken the movie at face value.  Acknowledging that stories abound about a few rare people who made it out of the Siberian gulags and across thousands of miles on foot to freedom and that this is a movie about such a legend would make it at least close to true.  Admitting that they don’t know if anyone ever did it would not have ruined the movie.  Counting on nobody staying through the credits to see their own deception revealed does ruin the experience.

I’m torn about recommending The Way Back.  If you go into it knowing that it’s based on legend, not on fact, will it still be as exciting as falling for the initial lie and investing in a truth that does not exist?  Very possibly.  I can say that the performances are wonderful, Russell Boyd’s cinematography is phenomenal and the entire production is a map nerd’s dream come true.  I have no way of knowing if the experience will be as fun knowing that it is not, in fact, a true story.  I do know that the disappointment and resentment at the end will be far lessened. 3 stars and a somewhat confused recommendation.

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