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.