There have been some great prisoner-of-war movies throughout the history of film, “Stalag 17,” “The Great Escape,” and “The Killing Fields” just to name a few. I wouldn’t put “The Way Back” into the same category as those; but it is an enthralling and poignant film.
“The Way Back” begins in a Siberian gulag in 1939. We meet several POWs and witness the harsh and tragic circumstances of their imprisonment. The rest of the story is about how several of these prisoners escape and walk to their freedom in India. Yes, they walked 4000 miles from Siberia to India. Along the way, the escapees battle the elements and terrain in an effort to survive. It’s an inspiring story and is supposedly based on a true account; although there has been some discussion about the truth of the book on which the film is based (“The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz).
“The Way Back” wants very much to be an epic movie–and much of it is epic with its sweeping vistas–but the film is a little too light to be a great epic, and some of the scenes come off as melodrama. Additionally, the individual characters could have been written with more detail. The best way for an audience to empathize with on-screen characters is to understand them and to have background about who they are. We get glimpses, but there aren’t many details here for us to grab hold of. The acting is generally good. The mostly male cast includes Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan. (Sixteen-year-old Ronan is the sole female of the main cast.) These are good actors, and they all performed competently. Farrell does a turn as a tough street guy with a Russian accent. I found his performance entertaining, and he demonstrated his further range as an actor, but I also thought he seemed slightly comedic and a little distracting. Jim Sturgess is the heart of the movie–and he does a fine job as a Polish prisoner who leads the escape. Again, the bigger problem here was character development as written in the screenplay.
Peter Weir has directed several very good films over the years: “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Witness,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Fearless,” “The Truman Show” and others. But here with “The Way Back,” his first film since 2003, the respectable Weir seems a little off his game. Having said that, the story itself is amazing, and much of the filmography is beautiful. We travel with the escapees through snow, the forest, caves, through water, across the desert and over mountains. They battle hunger, the cold, the wind, the heat, dehydration and mosquitoes. The result is an involving film, a great adventure and an inspiring testament to man’s will to live.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
2010, Rated PG-13, 133 minutes, Drama