Peter Weir’s 2010 film “The Way Back” is a magnificent true story that just so happens not to be true. Based on The Long Walk by Gulag survivor Slawomir Rawicz, the film concerns a group of Soviet prisoners in 1939 who make a run for freedom. Problem is, they start in the middle of Siberia, trekking south towards hopeful freedom. By the time the surviving escapees reach safety, they’ve walked over 4,000 miles.
Rawicz’s book was apparently inspiring enough to sell over half a million copies upon publication in 1956, though recent records have indicated that the author did not escape from the Gulag, but was released in 1942. So the film was at least inspired by, if not directly based, on the tale of a liar, one who might have found that merely surviving the Gulag wasn’t itself an interesting enough story. We’re commonly moved by entirely fictional stories, but does a lie accepted as truth deserve the same respect?
That said, Weir’s somber, quiet film is a wonderfully shot, moving adventure, a worthy experience despite the truth behind it. Weir’s lens aptly captures beautiful landscapes who beauty belie the brutality offered to underequipped travelers. Ruinous afflictions instantly descend upon the entire lot, the hunger and fatigue ceaseless, hallucinatory, and lethal.
The de facto leader of the prisoners is Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish soldier whose wife was tortured into fingering him as a spy. When he arrives at the Gulag, it’s clear that his odds for surviving long are nil. So when an opportune blizzard strikes, Janusz and others jump the wire, heading into one of the most inhospitable areas on earth.
The rest of the group is a varied lot, to be expected from a regime that killed or imprisoned people from every conceivable segment of its conquered populaces. Standouts are Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an American engineer, Valka (Colin Farrell), a criminal still proud of the Stalin tattoo on his chest, and Irena (Saoirse Ronan) a Polish girl they encounter fleeing a collective farm.
Weir’s treatment of these individuals is dignified, their stories those of individuals crushed by forces beyond their control, moving forward on the improbable chance that they might salvage their lives. True or not, it’s a fine representation of the countless human stories where human survival has proved, as Mr. Smith calls it, “a kind of protest” against tyranny.
“The Way Back” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.