“How do we go over the Himalayas?” “We walk.”
An impossible 4000 mile journey from Siberia to India was made in 1938 by a small band of men who escaped from a gulag. Faced with prison sentences of 10-20 years for fabricated crimes involving nonspecific sabotage and/or spying against the motherland, all faced the choice of dying a prisoner or dying free. This sort of project can appear tailor made for a cinematic treatment filled with requisite horns and flourishes with a bevy of speeches about the human spirit. To some extent, this does occur during the solid The Way Back. There is a strong desire to have ‘meaning’ in a Hollywood product, tying the project together in a reach for awards or in an appeal to a middlebrow audience. This film takes its events at a leisurely pace, and seems to infuse its trek with a moral of sorts, but still seems content with an empty core. An escape film in general comes with a existential theme baked in, since one must question whether it is better to subject oneself to imprisonment (and become someone else) or stay true to self and escape even if death is a virtual guarantee. For these men in a Siberian camp, there is little possibility that they would actually survive their sentences, making the decision to flee a relatively easy one. Still, this mammoth undertaking requires a person to leave behind all they know, their country, their families, and most likely persist in poverty in some strange land. Crossing the bitterly cold taiga that traverses most of the northern hemisphere, deserts, and the immense mountain chain to the South means that most or all of them are going to die en route. So what is the point of escape other than mute protest against the monolith of Soviet Russia, and the indifference of nature? The Way Back provides some answer to this question, though it is fortunate that a full-blown lesson is absent. There are understandable harangues against Communism, but for the most part they do this because the human instinct for self-preservation knows no other way. The film is light on characterization, which works well in this case since the men are starving, frightened, and exhausted, which makes expository dialogue a luxury that cannot be afforded.
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is a Pole, which after only the most recent historical partition of Poland by its surrounding nations means his home is once again moved into enemy territory. Stalin had little regard for foreigners in his deeply paranoid view, and he felt Poland was best occupied by the weak and stupid, or better yet, nobody. In the opening scene he is arrested, and the obligatory witness is provided by his beaten wife. In a stroke, he loses his entire world and is condemned to twenty years in the Siberian winter. The introduction to this grim existence is effective, as the men must scrape and beg for basic things like clothing, and are assured that they will be fed only enough to starve very slowly. They are ‘Enemies of the People’, and there are no people who would dare say otherwise. The camp has flimsy structures, guard towers, dogs and guns, but the true prison is the millions of square miles of frozen forest. Taiga is a biome made up of evergreen trees, and little else. Relatively few animals can be supported by this environment, and a small group of men manage to break away and flee into this wilderness in the middle of a winter blizzard. Their escape plan is hasty and bereft of details, which feels about right. There is little in the way of supplies to prepare for the journey, and any delay will only lead them to become weaker and loosen resolve. Awaiting some confluence of fortunate circumstances or an elegant mechanism would be suicide. And so they set off into the nothingness, with Janusz as their guide. Joining the party is an American known only as Mr. Smith, (Ed Harris), a criminal (Colin Ferrell at his most jumpy), an artist, an actor, and a prisoner suffering from night blindness (vitamin A deficiency). They have no illusions about their chances, in particular Mr. Smith, who harbors a deep wounding guilt that is both cross and shield to bear.
The details feel real enough, as men lose their teeth, appear as though unwashed for months, and do not appear to sleep. So desperate are they for food that rummaging in leaf litter for grubs and chasing a pack of wolves off their kill becomes more than reasonable. They must fashion clothing, shoes, fishhooks, paper, anything out of what they can get from a mostly empty environment. The slow pace of the film lends an intuitive idea of the passage of time, though longer takes and a less episodic tone would have been more becoming (and would have made for a commercially nonviable three hour film). Still, this is the compromise necessary to bring a well-told story to a wider and more pedestrian audience. The occasional reach for a ‘meaning’ to the journey is made for this reason, but does not hamstring the feature too badly.
The cinematography is, as expected, stunning. Nature has seldom been visualized with such a balance between brutality and beauty. The view serves as more than eye candy, making palpable the sheer enormity of their task as towering mountains and seemingly infinite desert stretch into the distance. Inspiring stories about individuals’ triumph over impossible odds are easy to come by in Hollywood history, and cliche is difficult to avoid. Peter Weir is better than most in avoiding some of these pitfalls, as their trek is governed as much by blind luck as it is the skill and resilience of those on this journey. The leader is wrong as often as he is correct, and he seems almost misguided in his zeal to escape this country, and incidentally the next three they enter. Though the story is burdened by a workmanlike pace with alternating episodes of problem followed by swift resolution and an unnecessary religious subtext (all of the men are Christian), there does not appear to be a unifying end goal. Janusz has a vision for why he must survive, namely to reconcile with the woman who betrayed him; the rest are only trying to survive, and do their best. It doesn’t sound like much, but few people really have an ambition beyond this. For The Way Back, survival is enough, and so death is as meaningless as survival. This comes through the Mr. Smith character, who rejects kindness as a disease best avoided. This resolve weakens when Irena (Saoirse Ronan) joins their group after fleeing from an orphanage. Against his better judgment, he becomes a father figure to her. Though young, she is hardly a burden; if anything she gives the journey an energy it lacked before. Smith represents our condition as a vessel filled with human spirit, and he is ordinarily sealed off to preserve what is left in order to survive brutal circumstances. Irena cracks that vessel; and it can be filled and emptied all too rapidly by a violent and stoic world. Weir seems to comment that such a vessel can be filled with nothing and sustain. Certainly, this is not the common thread in films about a struggle; life must have meaning. This treatise is not only debatable, but deeply misleading and demoralizing. When the human loses its reason to be alive, it finds another reason, or dies.
Death is a constant companion to our protagonists, and eventually becomes a matter of course. One particular image, a desert grave marker overlooking footprints that disappear over a dune communicates this all too well. Eventually, these men reach the forbidding Himalayas, and from there India, the first nation they encounter free of Communism. So what is the payoff at the end of this heart-stopping journey? The coda suggests that there is more to survival than simply enduring. History marches onward with a grim and resolute inertia; political movements come and go, and the politics that created them remain indifferent to the damage they cause; nature endures and is indifferent to survival in its shadow. Through this all, only fragile humanity and the tenuous connections between individuals are all that mark the passing of these; a moment of the infinite captured in time. Perhaps that is what matters most, and justifies the enormous effort required to sustain one seemingly insignificant human life amidst an ocean of tragedy.