The Way Back
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The Way Back

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One of the most enduring themes in story telling is the epic journey. From mythology to the classics of literature the arduous trek has been the basis for more tales of heroism and rising beyond the normal levels of human endeavor. The fundamental nature of this type of story is transformative; both for the characters and the audience. As we sit there in the safety of our homes we get to be impressed by the trials and tribulations encountered and grueling lengths that must be achieved in order to survive. Although the details of the daring trek may vary from one tale to the next there are several points typically held in common. First there has to be a polarization of good and evil or at least a clearly demarcation between protagonist and antagonist manifesting a good versus evil scenario. Next, there must be an overwhelming driving force to compel such an incredibly difficult journey. This provides a trial by fire that test the fortitude of the participants beyond the limits of human endurance. As the story unfolds we might like to think we would rise to the occasion in the same laudable fashion but what makes these stories so popular is the fact that is so tested few would be able to show such mettle. One of the most recent films derived from this theme is ‘The Way Back’. This film follows a group of men who escaped the Russian Siberian Gulag Prison camp resulting in a journey some of the most difficult terrain on the globe. Their desperation for freedom would take them from the frozen waste lands of Central Asia to the harsh, seemingly endless heat of the Gobi desert. Unfortunately the foundation of the story has come under fire as fiction; not just the usual elaboration commonly used in screenplays ‘based on true events’ but outright fabrication. The thing is this still does not detract from the incredible cinematography or poignant performances that are contained within this movie. The film itself is well crafted and presented regardless of the authenticity of the material. If you want documented reality stick with the History Channel otherwise accept a film for the piece of entertainment it is.

The main complaint levied against this film is predominantly surrounding the source material. The basis of the script was the novel by Slavomir Rawicz; ‘The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom’. Perhaps if the word ‘true’ had been omitted the resulting outrage could have been averted. Rawicz presented the experience as one he personally experienced; written from the first person perspective. The book was successful but its veracity came under fire when a documentary made by the BBC uncovered evidence that the author never escaped from the prison camp or made the 4,000 mile march to India and freedom. Condemning his account were documents, some directly from Rawicz himself that showed the Russians released him in 1942. Adding to the attack upon his book was the statements made by another Polish prison claiming the story was about his experience. Doubt about the truth of that account as also surfaced. This is something that happens on a fairly regular basis. What raises my ire is the need to sell a perfectly workable story as a personal account. What ever happen to just telling a good fictional story? If you put the allegations aside this isn’t a bad film, at least from the perspective of generating and holding the interest of the audience. Fiction is a time honored and respectable form of literature and cinema. The need to transfer the fictional account to one’s own tale of dedication and superiority does seem to hint at some deep seated person issues but I would need to check with the DMS-IV before offering a deeper editorial comment. Sure the original author was a Polish prisoner of the Soviet Union during World War II. This is in itself a feat of endurance well worth noting. It would have been much better to either write about one of the noble true and historically verifiable escapes or just proudly stand by a reasonable well done work of fiction. With today’s access to all sorts of records and information it is not a wise course to even attempt such a deception; it is always bad when it comes out and the fact is it will certainly be exposed.

The story is set against the turbulence of the Soviet Union in 1942, the final years of World War II in Europe. The Soviets were instituting a systemic purge of any considered enemies of the State. A young Polish man, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) found himself caught in this political struggle convicted and sentenced to the dreaded Siberian Gulag Prison camp. Although present there was little need for guards or walls. The camp was located deep in the bleak frozen tundra considered impossible to cross. At the camp the young man falls in with a motley cadre including an American, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), harden Russian Valka (Colin Farrell), the artistic Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), Latvian priest Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), an actor named Khabarov (Mark Strong) and Zoran (Dragos Bucur), an accountant from Yugoslavia. The scheme to escape begins as a way to lift moral but during a particularly harsh snowstorm sees an opportunity to put the plan into action. They group head south to Mongolia eventually making their way to India and freedom. In order to keep the film from being completely driven by testosterone they do add a young woman, Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who ironically lies about her own situation to cover as dark secret. The performances are suitably intense and frequently emotionally draining. Both Farrell and Harris are well versed in the tropes they are called upon to portray here bringing their usual level of expertise to the movie. The story generally holds together very well and the lingering clouds of doubt aside the film is rather well worth it.

Posted 04/14/11

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