Monday, May 30, 2011

The Way Back

Peter Weir’s newest film, The Way Back, is everything that we love about movies. It is portrayed on a large canvas that’s cinematic, breathtaking, and visually stunning. The story is powerful and compelling. This film is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit and the will to live. It reaffirms our desire for freedom at any cost. But what I found most encouraging about The Way Back is that even under the worst circumstances our ability for compassion and our humanity can not only survive but thrive.

The Way Back is based on the book, The Long Walk, by Slawormir Rawicz, who was a Polish POW in the Soviet Gulag during World War II. The film is based on his experiences when he escaped from prison and journeyed a 4,000 mile trek to freedom.

The movie takes place in 1940 as Janusz, (Jim Sturgess), a Polish POW  is  interrogated by a Soviet officer. He is accused of being a spy and sentenced to 20 years in a Siberian Gulag. In prison he meets a ragtag group of prisoners, including Voss (Gustaf Skarsgärd) a Latvian priest, Tomasz (Alexandru Potecean), a Russian artist, Zoran (Dragos Bucur), a Yugoslav accountant, Vaka (Colin Farrell), a hardened Russian criminal, Khabarov (Mark Strong), a Russian actor, and the lone American in the group, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris). Together they decide to escape and embark on a journey that will test the limits of human endurance. The real danger is not the prison dogs, the guards, or the barbed wired fences but 5 million square miles of Siberian wilderness. Can they overcome the harshness of the weather to survive?

Along the way, they encounter, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a Polish girl who escaped from a forced farm collective and joins their trek to freedom. Her presence adds a touch of humanity that will be necessary to finish the journey. Without giving away too much of the story, the original destination was Mongolia, but circumstances forced the group to track south across deserts and the heights of the Himalayans to seek refuge in British controlled India.

The Way Back is the ultimate adventure story. It’s almost impossible to believe that anyone could survive such a journey covering 4,000 miles. The film is magnificently directed by Peter Weir. He has been one of my favorite directors since the time I saw one of his first movies, Picnic at Hanging Rock, in 1975. The Australian director has only gotten better throughout the years.

But what really drives The Way Back is the portrayal of Mr. Smith by Ed Harris. Why is an American in a Soviet Gulag in Siberia? Mr. Smith is a man tormented by his past and must overcome his own demons to find his humanity. What is his story? Ed Harris is sensational. He always finds a way to lose himself in the character. Harris always puts everything into his acting, and it clearly shows. The film features an international cast of actors who also bring their A game, including Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan from Ireland, Gustof Skarsgärd from Germany, Alexandru Potecean and Dragos Bucur from Bulgaria. The acting creates an authentic feel and presence of what Soviet Russia would have felt like in the 1940s. Director Peter Weir went the extra mile for authenticity by erecting a full-scale prison camp. The actors were required to endure harsh conditions to add to the realism of the story.

We can learn a great deal about history by watching movies. The Way Back should be required viewing for all high school students. It’s no secret that we have fast become a society that knows little about our own history much less events that are portrayed in The Way Back. Most people probably have some knowledge of Nazi concentration camps. But I would guess most of us would be hard pressed to talk about the Soviet Gulag camps that operated for decades. In fact, the Soviet Union could give Nazi Germany a run for their cruelty and imprisonment of millions of innocent people. It’s a part of history we should know. The Way Back is dedicated to the many millions of people who suffered under the totalitarian rule of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Russia.

The Way Back is an excellent movie. It was exquisitely done and is an inspiration to the human spirit. We might all think we have incredible obstacles and difficulties to face. but The Way Back has a way of putting things in perspective. After viewing this movie, we will all be thankful for the freedom we enjoy.

The Way Back is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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