Magazine | February 21, 2011, Issue

Film: The Great Quest

A review of The Way Back

Imagine, for a moment, that when Steve McQueen rode his motorcycle up barbed wire in The Great Escape, it was the first time that American movie audiences had been exposed to the concept of Nazi prison camps. That will give you some idea of the unusual challenge facing Peter Weir’s The Way Back. This is a prison-break movie that becomes an epic travelogue: A motley group of men slip through barbed wire in Siberia and set out on an astonishing trek southward toward freedom, across Russia, Mongolia, and Tibet, and finally into India. But it’s also the first major motion picture to be made — ever! — about the Soviet gulag, and this breakthrough turns out to be a burden. No single movie should be asked to carry so much historical weight.

The story is told from the perspective of a Pole named Janusz (Jim Sturgess, effective but upstaged by his co-stars), who is denounced to his country’s Russian occupiers — the year is 1940, and Hitler and Stalin have just divided Poland between them — in the most shattering way imaginable: The informant, her spirit broken by some form of torture, is his wife. Shipped off to a snowbound prison camp in the farthest reaches of the Soviet Empire, Janusz is immediately focused on escape. But he doesn’t want revenge on his wife, we eventually realize; he wants to let her know that he forgives her.

In the gulag, he finds co-conspirators: a loquacious actor named Khabarov (Mark Strong), a taciturn American named Smith (Ed Harris), a knife-wielding thug named Valka (Colin Farrell, who failed as an A-list leading man but has recovered his mojo playing sympathetic lowlifes), and a clutch of somewhat less memorable supporting characters. The world of the prison camp is delineated in a few swift strokes: the backbreaking labor in mines and forests; the speed with which frost and malnutrition make corpses of the weak; and the peculiar economy of the camps, which transforms everything from pornographic sketchwork to storytelling ability into currency. (Some currencies are emotional rather than economic: One of Janusz’s fellow plotters turns out to be a fantasist who has no intention of escape, but who likes to live off the energy and optimism exuded by the planning.)

Then the men make their break, slipping free of one prison only to be surrounded by another. In the trackless expanses of Central Asia, the threat of pursuit fades soon enough, but other threats take its place: cold, hunger, swarming mosquitoes, and eventually — as the forests of Siberia give way to more arid landscapes, and finally to the Gobi Desert — the brutal calculus of thirst.

#page#Weir makes the story linear and grueling, eschewing the subplots that moviegoers are conditioned to expect from quest narratives. There are no romances, few feuds, and fewer detours. Mostly, it’s just seven men — and then six, and then five, as nature and circumstances take their toll — against the wilderness, with every secondary issue burned away by the fires of necessity.

Every secondary issue, that is, save one: the politics of the Soviet Union and the horrors of Communism, which Weir clearly feels duty-bound to keep emphasizing long after the gulag has become a distant memory for his travelers. To this end, the movie introduces a female runaway, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), whose chatty presence persuades the men to unburden themselves of their experiences with Stalin’s tyranny. From Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), a former priest, we hear about the persecution of Christians. From Harris’s American we hear about the betrayal of Stalinism’s American admirers. From Irena herself, whose parents were Polish Communists, we hear about how the revolution eats its own. And from Valka, who has Stalin and Lenin tattooed together on his chest, we’re reminded how the Soviet dictators could command loyalty even from subjects who had every reason to despise them.

As a blow for historical memory, the litany is admirable. But in a movie that’s more about man’s struggle against nature than man’s inhumanity to man, it can feel forced, dutiful, and leaden. It’s to Weir’s credit that he feels an obligation to use his epic to make up for Hollywood’s refusal to give Communism’s crimes the attention they deserve. But The Way Back would have been a better movie if it could have taken these crimes for granted, and kept its focus on its heroes’ impossible, geography-defying quest.

Still, there are moments when the combination works. I watched The Way Back shortly after rewatching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and at times Weir’s Central Asia took on an almost Middle-earthly quality — vast and empty, beautiful and menacing, with exotic landmarks (Lake Baikal, China’s Great Wall, Lhasa) looming like Lothlorien or Minas Tirith. At one point, the weary travelers reach what they think is the safety of Mongolia, only to find a huge Asiatic gate inscribed with the face of Stalin and the hammer and sickle — because Communism had triumphed in Mongolia as well. It’s a scene that feels like one of the moments of near-despair in Tolkien’s saga, when the fellowship is forced to confront the seemingly invincible power of Sauron and Mordor. And this is, perhaps, as resonant a way as any to remember Josef Stalin, his empire, and his gulag — as the all-too-real equivalent of Tolkien’s Shadow in the East.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Lost in Space

Almost half a century after the first man went into orbit, and at a time when the federal government is so deeply in debt that no expenditure can be allowed ...
Politics & Policy

Arab Agony

Upheaval is shaking the Arab world. Countries there are alike in being under one-man rule, and this authoritarianism is being tested to destruction. The outcome might be political reform and ...
Politics & Policy

Palin vs. Romney

Two potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have been described as “frontrunners”: former governors Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. According to pollster Scott Rasmussen, they’re the candidates with the ...


Books, Arts & Manners

The Straggler

Morpheme Addiction

Until very recently the only thing I knew how to say in Turkish was the proverb Nerede çokluk, orada bokluk, which means (I shall bowdlerize slightly) “Where there are people, ...
Politics & Policy

Australian Model

Think of him as the Tea Partier from Down Under. John Howard, the second-longest-serving prime minister in Australian history and leader of the Liberal (in American terms, read Conservative) party ...


Politics & Policy


Marital Goods Jason Lee Steorts misses the boat when he argues that monogamous same-sex unions and heterosexual infertile unions possess the same kind of value, and that therefore we should have ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ It looks like Egypt has discovered term limits. ‐ The House vote to repeal Obamacare is being treated by the media as a political stunt, since the bill is unlikely ...
The Long View

Tweets from @youthcaptain

Tweets from @youthcaptain, the next leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Was supposed to have some Dad-and-me time today. He’s “too busy” watching stuff in Egypt and Jordan etc. ...
Politics & Policy


OMEGA All day long my watch has been stopping On me, every few hours, a good Omega Automatic chronometer, certified, Gold face and bezel, circa 1970, Self-winding. My father left it to me When he died, ...

Exit, Stage Left

The chairman of the NEA recently said we might have too much theater in this country. Rocco Landesman was quoted by the New York Times thus: “You can either increase ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Making Sense of the Iran Chaos

One would prefer that correct decisions be made according to careful, deliberate plan. But a correct decision made impulsively, through a troubling process, is still nonetheless correct, and so it is with Donald Trump’s decision to refrain from military action against Iran. The proposed strike would represent a ... Read More

In Defense of Coleman Hughes

Picture the scene: A young man walks into a congressional hearing to offer witness testimony. His grandfather was barbarically brutalized by people who are now long dead. The nation in which he resides built its wealth of his grandfather’s brutalization. The question: Should his fellow citizens pay the young ... Read More

College Leaders Should Learn from Oberlin

Thanks to their social-justice warrior mindset, the leaders of Oberlin College have caused an Ohio jury to hit it with $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a case where the school couldn't resist the urge to side with its “woke” students against a local business. College leaders should learn ... Read More

Joe and the Segs

Joe Biden has stepped in it, good and deep. Biden, if he has any hope of ever being elected president, will be dependent on residual goodwill among African Americans from his time as Barack Obama’s loyal and deferential vice president — so deferential, in fact, that he stood aside for Herself in 2016 even ... Read More
Film & TV

Toy Story 4: A National Anthem

The Toy Story franchise is the closest thing we have to an undisputed national anthem, a popular belief that celebrates what we think we all stand for — cooperation, ingenuity, and simple values, such as perpetual hope. This fact of our infantile, desensitized culture became apparent back in 2010 when I took a ... Read More