Welcome to India.
Papers and passports, please.
(Indian border official to the Siberian escapees)
Siberian escapees shake their head.
Never mind (says the Indian border official).
Stalin was the world’s biggest mass murderer (not that any of you schmucks would know).
Crueler than Hitler and all other monsters in history.
The so-called ‘enemies’ of the state that Stalin’s murderous regime didn’t kill outright, it banished to the icy wasteland of Siberian Gulags where many of the overworked and underfed prisoners died a slow death.
The Way Back (directed by Peter Weir) is the story of seven prisoners who escape from a Siberian Gulag and their 4,000 mile walk to India (their original destination is Mongolia but the political situation compels them to extend their freedom trek to India).
Filmed in Bulgaria, Morocco and toward the end in India, The Way Back is based on the book The Long Walk by a Polish soldier Slavomir Rawic who claimed to have escaped from a Soviet gulag with a few others and made the long, difficult journey into India.
Rawic’s account has now been discredited but the movie is not any lesser for it.
The Way Back tracks the escape in 1941 of seven prisoners from a harsh Soviet Gulag, where the conditions are horribly bad inside the prison and miserable outside.
The prisoners are forced to work under blizzard conditions in the snow logging wood or in dangerous conditions in the underground mines.
As one of the guards tells the prisoners upon their arrival in the Gulag, as a grim warning should they be tempted to escape:
Nature is your jail and she is without mercy. If nature doesn’ kill you, the local will (there’s always a bounty on escapees).
With long sentences and little chance of surviving for long, a Polish prisoner Janus Wieszeck (Jim Sturgess) sentenced to 20-years under false charges, an American (Ed Harris), a professional ‘Urki’ criminal Valka (Colin Farrell) and four others cut through the fence on a cold, icy night when the winter weather is at its worst and escape into the snowy wilderness with the goal of heading south to freedom in Mongolia.
The movie from then is the account of their long march through snowy mountains and sandy deserts with little food, water or equipment.
Along the arduous path amidst harsh terrain some of the prisoners die, some leave, some fall sick and a pretty girl joins them in the forest, all making for a riveting, poignant drama.
The acting is adequate and the photography pleasing.
The drama of the long march notwithstanding, there are a few weaknesses.
The desolation of the vast empty icy wasteland that is Siberia does not come through as starkly as we’d like.
Then there’s the brutality of the Stalin’s regime. Again, we felt the cruelty and barbarous nature of this monstrous regime didn’t come through enough. Given our prior reading on Stalin and his times, we expect more but others may settle for less.
Finally, there’s the trek itself.
We do see them struggling for water and food as they trudge through snow and sand but we seldom get to see how they forage for food in the wasteland they walk through, particularly in the later parts of the movie.
These weaknesses apart, the movie is definitely worth watching for the courage and determination the prisoners demonstrate in their quest for freedom in the face of grave odds.
The Way Back is in wide release in the U.S. and must be playing in a theater near you.