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.