The Way Back (2010) Dir. Peter Weir
The movie has a collection of characters, each of different nationality, that have one thing in common: they walk together. And then, they walk some more. And even when they get there (‘there’ is yet to be defined), they still keep on walking. Watching it almost made my feet sore.
I’m gonna approach this movie a little bit differently. I read more to it than just a story about an escape from a gulag by a group of convicts and their march for freedom. If we take this story as literally as that, it becomes unconvincing and unrealistic. Can you honestly believe a horrendous walk through Siberia, Mongolia and Himalayas to India would be like a Sunday stroll? Peter Weir wants us to believe that a group of people (different ages, different endurance) can find enough strength, determination, and health to make it. The escape from the gulag raises my suspicion — it’s well guarded, and the weather conditions are too severe for anyone to make it. Even so, they make it. So that’s that. But, then, comes the impossible part: they walk for miles through heavy snow, bitter cold, rocky ground, the sun and the heat, with barely anything to drink, and no food. Yet, nothing stops them — not the conditions, nor lack of food and water, nor even the exhaustion. They obviously live off freedom, or at least dreams about it. It’s enough to give a man the strength. (I don’t mock the idea that hope is powerful enough to make people go beyond themselves, but the movie simplifies it too much.)
Now, comes my reading of it. I believe it’s a story about the afterlife of the characters. The gulag symbolizes death. In fact, being sent to a Russian gulag meant slow and humiliating death for thousands of people. The life ends the moment you enter the gate of the camp. For the characters, it ends literally. We don’t follow them closely at all times so we can’t be sure they haven’t been stabbed (un)expectedly by one of the Urks, criminal-convicts (professionals criminals, who terrorized other convicts). Quite soon after Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish patriot, arrives there, he finds a few brave (read: desperate) ones willing to run away with him. They do it. They run into the cold night and unwelcoming woods. Their lives end, and their afterlife starts. At this point, their journey through the purgatory begins. They go a long and hard way. For each of them, it’s the last chance to atone for their sins. They travel through incredibly beautiful lands (thank you, National Geographic), but they’re never stopped by anyone (no soldiers, guards, local people, catching their sight). It’s only possible because they’re no longer in Russian – they’re in between places, on their way to heaven, I should think so. Do they reach heaven? Of course! No movie about afterlife can be without a trip to paradise.
As expected, they need to fight with all kinds of temptations along the way. Here, Valka (Colin Farrell) embodies evil and temptation. He’s never restricted by any moral code — killing or stealing is a trifle for him. When they don’t have anything to eat, it is Valka who proposes eating one of them, the one who dies first, of course. The thought sickens Janusz while we know Valka would be willing, without even a slight hesitation. Right after that scene, we witness a pack of wolves, ripping apart a wolf’s carcass — a symbol of what the men may become if they give in to Valka’s evil talk. Fortunately for them, they don’t have to resort to cannibalism. They reach the Russia-Mongolia border, and, without any trouble at all, cross it. They leave the horrors of communist Russia behind, entering a new land with a new hope. Valka doesn’t cross the border. He’s even physically unable to make a step. His evil side wins — he still needs to stay longer than others to atone for his sins.
What truly matters in their story is Janusz’s kindness – Smith (Ed Harris) calls it a weakness, but it is his weakness that makes them reach their destination. Janusz passes it along (no one is left behind, we share everything – kind of attitude). They survive as a team. Then, however, at the end of their journey, they part — each has to go his own way. The last scene completes the idyllic picture – Janusz finds freedom and forgiveness – and proves that it pays off to be a good guy, or rather the good guy.
Is it a war movie? No – there’s no actual war or fighting. Is it a gulag story? No again – they escape the camp quite early in the story. Obviously, it combines the elements of both, but it’s a story about a journey (and afterlife, if you will) that dominates here. We can trace elements from Weir’s Gallipoli, especially the Mongolian desert sequence, but Gallipoli is much more fascinating. If only the main theme of The Way Back wasn’t walking, but would involve some kind of action, the movie would definitely benefit. If you’re a fan of beautiful landscapes and cross-continent walking, it’s gonna be a treat for you.
Long days, pleasant nights,