The Way Back
But for the grace of the Founding Fathers, geography, and the ongoing worldwide libertarian resistance would have gone we ___ 8/10

The Way BackDirected by Peter Weir
Screenplay by Keith R. Clarke
Novel by Slavomir Rawicz

Jim Sturgess ... Janusz
Ed Harris ... Mr. Smith
Saoirse Ronan ... Irena
Colin Farrell
... Valka
Alexandru Potocean ... Tomasz
Dragos Bucur ... Zoran
Gustaf Skarsgård ... Voss
Mark Strong ... Khabarov

Mr. Smith: In the camps, some saw death as freedom.
Janusz: Then why didn't you just kill yourself?
Mr. Smith: Survival was a kind of protest. Being alive was my punishment.
Janusz: Punishment for what?
Mr. Smith: I brought David to Russia.
Janusz: And now no one can forgive you. And you can't forgive yourself...

Janusz: We are not criminals. We are escaping from criminals.

Personal aside: The film reminds me of Victor Herman's autobiography Coming out of the Ice, which was made into a movie (1982) starring John Savage and Willie Nelson (apparently only available in VHS). Only in Ice the American protagonist was confined in the Soviet labor camps for roughly 30 years... miraculously surviving to leave Russian in 1976. Herman returned to the United States, to Detroit, and was an honored guest of one of the Libertarian Party of Michigan conventions I helped to organize in the early 1980s in Southeast Michigan. I have a signed copy of his remarkable book—IMHO, the most grueling tale of survival ever told—among my cherished possessions. Individuals like Herman inspire, through their hardship, all freedom-cherishing individuals to stay the course, do our parts.

The difference between Victor Herman's story of the personal aside and Janusz' (Jim Sturgess) story is the latter individual was able to 'get the heck out of Dodge.' Which itself was a miracle. Based on a true story—though exactly whose story was it is, apparently, a matter of discussion[1]—the details between Herman and Janusz conditions are quite similar at the outset: arbitrary power of one absolutist state (the Soviets) in conflict with another absolutist state (the Nazis). Poland is trapped in WW2 between the two armies, Janusz is a Polish officer captured by the Soviets, they extract under torture an accusation of criminal behavior from his wife, and based on that accusation Janusz is black-bagged and sent to Guantanamo—whoops, excuse me, I mean shipped to the Soviet Gulag.

The authenticity of the Siberian labor camp setting—which according to the DVD extras was actually rugged country in modern Bulgaria—are practically worth the price of admission...and definitely worth the price of a Netflix delivery.[2] Director Weir—definitely check out his resume, he's made some solidly brilliant movies, both commercially and artistically—was drawn to the narrative by Slavomir Rawicz, and felt the story of the Soviet Meatgrinder has long been diminished vis a vis the Nazi Death Machine. [On a pure numbers basis, the the Soviet death camps and pogroms, especially the Ukrainians and various ethnic genocides (including the ethnic Germans) approximately double the carnage of the Nazis: Soviets: 25,000,000 to 60,000,000 vs. Nazis: 15,000,000 to 32,000,000.] Staggering.

Also in the extras Weir points out that, ironically, unlike the Nazis—who liked to brag about their systems and their efficiency—the Soviets tended to sweep the Gulag situation under the rug. Not many journalists were privy to conditions and activities in the Gulag, or if they were, they were reluctant to go public for fear of becoming guests. The director and producer spent considerable energy showing viewers the reality, and it shows. What also impresses is the difference between the political 'criminals' like Janusz and the American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and the actual criminals like Valka, played menacingly, then later more maturing, by Colin Farrell. In the Gulags the real criminals tended to handle the day-to-day personnel control issues... and got better rations and treatment.

The nonreal criminals were not intended to survive. The sequence of relationships and then the decision by Janusz to cooperate with Smith in an escape are rendered adroitly. We are not in the Gulag long enough to become (too) depressed. I'm glad for that, and it shows good planning on the part of the director/writers to keep the storytelling moving at a reasonable pace. Even after the principals escape the camp and begin their long movement on foot to escape Soviet-controlled land, the plot is more than just "this is a Herculean marathon and people are progressively suffering... always." Several elements keep the interest, especially the introduction of Irena (Saoirse Ronan) and the character development of Valka.

The Way Back hinges its appeal on the friendship and fortitude of the two principals, Janusz and Mr. Smith—the others call him simply Mister. That and the immensity of the scenery: Weir gives us a visceral understanding of what a 4,000 mile hike in Asian wastelands looks like. Unfortunately, there's only so much anyone can do to relieve the monotony of a 'trudge' movie... which is the only reason I assign it an 8. Considering the extras on the DVD and the dedication and expertise of the actors, then certainly the ethical import of the true persons who experienced/undertook such an ordeal, you can rate it a 10.

Perhaps one thing a little disappointing is that the true story hasn't been stressed sufficiently in the extras, so one is not quite sure what is fictional and what actually occurred. The movie does supply newsreel footage that documents the Borg-Germans going into Poland from the west and the Borg-Russians going into Poland from the east. Seems some news of the end of the war was also presented, some of it germane to the protagonists' journey. If the movie does anything to awaken the knowledge of the true effects of Soviet-Marxist ideology in the context of a superstate, that is to the good. Putative Borg-Zionist control of Western media has excluded several heartwrenching epics that do not fit the Israeli-Leviathan 'manifest-destiny' agenda: such as the virtually unknown ethnic German pogrom unleashed by Churchill/Roosevelt/Stalin at Yalta.

The Way Back is a good movie with reasonable watchability value.

[1] The film is based on a memoir The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz depicting his escape from a Siberian gulag and subsequent 4000-mile walk to freedom in India. Incredibly popular, it sold over 500,000 copies and is credited with inspiring many explorers. However, in 2006 the BBC unearthed records (including some written by Rawicz himself) that showed he had been released by the USSR in 1942. In 2009 another former Polish soldier, Witold Glinski, claimed that the book was really an account of his own escape. However this claim too has been seriously challenged.

[2] I can't quite figure out my IMDb information, but the way I read the film box office numbers, The Way Back seems to have grossed only ~$4 million through early 2011, so let's just say it hasn't been a big BO production thus far.

2011 June 08
Copyright © Brian Wright | The Coffee Coaster™
The Way Back | Ed Harris | Peter Weir | Jim Sturgess | Soviet Gulag

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