Reinventing the struggles of yesterday for cinematic purposes is a practice as old as the art form itself. Of course, there’s the three-act structure and the Joseph Campbell bullshit that contorts history into protagonist(s) battling incredible odds to provide a last second miracle, with theme being the overriding purpose. Did our hero save a lot of people? Did he/she rewrite the course of history and lay the groundwork for what’s going on today in our world? Should we count our lucky stars that one noble freedom fighter did what he needed to do to preserve our future and teach us a lesson about appreciating humanity?
History isn’t written like a character arc. Most people did what they needed to do in less enlightened times because they needed to save their asses. Your principles are only worth so much when danger (and not destiny) is nipping at your toes. Such is the case of the Polish prisoners at the heart of “The Way Back.” Trapped in a Siberian concentration camp in 1940, they don’t need to peer into the future to know it’s a horrible place to be.
The rooms are crowded as poorly educated people sharing bunks with each other flood small cabins, each stabbing each other over card games, somehow hoping that they will be released even if they are surrounded on all sides by mountains and snow. One sideways glance at a soldier will get your nose rearranged. Rations grow dim as people are forced to horde bread for future meals. There’s no political reasoning here -- it’s time to get the hell out.
Our protagonists are a varied group of survivors and fighters, led by the intuition of young Janusz (Jim Sturgess). He’s not the most muscular of the group, often shying away from physical confrontation, and he’s not much of a leader, so there’s no speechifying or grandstanding. Director Peter Weir is smart enough to know that in some desperate times, the leader can often be simply the guy who makes the first move. Janusz has just lost his family as he was accused of espionage, so he has nothing to escape to, but he realizes escape is all he has. Like the rest of his compatriots, he has no plans for the future, only for tomorrow, and they involve not being chased and hunted like a dog.
Despite the protestations of the camp’s delusional lifer (Mark Strong), Janusz makes a break for it with a colorful gang of escapees, each one oblivious to the fact they’re on a suicide mission. All are Polish, with the exception of the enigmatic Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an American with no ties to anyone who, in a lesser film, would become a third act villain or complete a heroic sacrifice to save the lives of our heroes. While there’s no malice in his actions, it’s clear he doesn’t care for getting-to-know-you's and just wants to keep moving while wasting a minimum of oxygen. Harris has been doing strong work in the last few years despite some occasionally dodgy projects, and that continues here with his stoic emotional armor portraying a man confident enough to feel he’s not fighting for survival, but merely “in between things.”
A note about this: we are not historians, so we don’t know what happened in the real-life story (or the book, “The Long Walk”). We’re willing to accept commercial considerations as the reasoning behind using the English language for all characters, despite the film being a nationalistic Polish story. But we do wonder what the relationship was between Mr. Smith and the others in real life. Did they communicate? Did Smith speak Polish? Did the prisoners speak English? Was it just hand signals? Did Mr. Smith exist? It's likely explained in the book, which is probably worth reading. But, you know, irrelevant to the movie.
As the group moves on, they start to weigh the pros and cons of doing absolutely everything they can to survive. There are morals at play, so theft and murder to survive seems out of play for some of them, with the exception of Valka (Colin Farrell), the camp’s resident possible psychopath. A relationship forms where none of the survivors truly trust Valka, but are aware his shifty morals may be necessary to avoid a cold death in the snow. Valka, meanwhile, understands that group dynamics will be necessary to his own survival, but rankles at the contempt others show for the relationship between his survival instinct and his knife. The uneasiness between characters is further augmented by Valka’s unassuming boisterousness and agreeability, further confusing relationships. Can we rely on Valka? Is Valka going to screw up everything? Will Valka kill me for my boots?
“The Way Back” falls into the rhythms and structure of such a film by ebbing and flowing with long journeys, then camping sites, then further walking, interspersed with the occasional interloper or wolf attack. What’s fresh aren’t the plot developments, but merely the stress and the toll of the journey, as Weir smartly displays the decaying minds of the travelers over their frayed bodies. Of course, the self-mutilation aspect isn’t ignored. While it’s an entirely irrelevant discussion, it does seem that to earn an R-rating from the MPAA, you need to show multiple severed limbs and outlandish spraying arteries (or a vagina!), but “The Way Back” features some of the most harrowing on-foot maladies in onscreen history. There is no shortage of onscreen blisters, gangrene, swollen limbs and infected skin in “The Way Back” as our protagonists brave first extreme cold and, later, the sizzling heat of the desert. “The Way Back” is rated PG-13, but is in spots fairly hard to watch as you see how the harsh environment affects the extremities in believable detail. But it’s okay, because no one is naked.
What Weir has done with “The Way Back” is preserved one particularly upsetting experience in cinematic form, a survival story not unlike to this season’s “127 Hours.” But as the Danny Boyle picture uses plenty of cinematic techniques to showcase one man’s battle for his life, “The Way Back” is sparse, with minimal dialogue and an emphasis on the punishing length of time spent in the wilderness. But with minimal fuss, Weir illustrates there are no rewards in life but the ones earned for ourselves, that the journey is more important than personal growth. A life maintained is a life gained. [A-]