It is 1940, somewhere in Soviet-occupied Poland. A Pole is being interrogated; he has been beaten. Then a woman is called in, his wife; some torture has degraded her. She informs on her man; he will be sent to a gulag. The horror is clear, but the feeling is everyday and commonplace. As someone else will admit later in the film, we have all done terrible things.
By then we are in Siberia and it is important in Peter Weir’s The Way Back that, just as Siberia is a hell of fearsome hardship and severity, and the gulag a prison where life is a homemade playing card in a gambling game, the country is implacably beautiful. This is a film about surviving, or not, and the monstrous compromises made along the way, but, early on, we feel the compassion and the alternative sensibility in Weir’s slow, marveling pan shots of the land and its weather.
Some viewers may be suspicious. They will note that National Geographic is one of the partners in the production, and they may say this pretty terrain reminds them of David Lean—which can be a way of letting a vicarious travelogue obscure the real history
behind T.E. Lawrence or Dr. Zhivago. I say that because The Way Back is not being widely understood, or appreciated. But in this astonishing story of a 4,000-mile journey as some prisoners escaped from the gulag in Siberia and walked to India, the stress is not just on the terrible times and the exhausting ordeal. It is also a film that says this is a
miraculous world, and the people in it are no less amazing. That view is not fashionable, I suppose, and so the best movie of 2010 is being badly neglected.
There is another objection that can be leveled at this film. I think it’s specious, but it can’t be ignored. Weir’s picture is based on a book by by Slavomir Rawicz, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. That book was an international best-seller before BBC research revealed that Rawicz had in fact been released from the gulag in 1942. As if novels, some of them great, have not often departed from experience. But Weir has only taken this book as a basis, and we do know that some real escapees made the journey that is depicted. Weir’s prior masterpiece, The Truman Show (1998), written by Andrew Niccol, showed an America that has never been recorded or documented—which doesn’t mean it’s not there if you have eyes to feel it. The Way Back asks to be regarded as nothing more or less than a story, and its human grandeur derives not simply from the realization that compromised and damaged people sometimes behave well, but that the world of nature was waiting patiently for their nobility to appear.
With location work in Bulgaria, Morocco, and India, Weir takes his characters south from the gulag, skirting Lake Baykal, into Mongolia, across China into Tibet, over the Himalayas and into the green foothills of India. I’m not going to spell out the events of the journey, because I think the narrative is precious. But, when you’ve seen the film—and you must see it on the biggest screen available—you may want to study maps to convince yourself of what happened. The film goes from deep winter to sand-storm deserts; from the excess of snow to the absence of water. Some people are lost along the way, some survive. But, even when the journey is over, there is something larger and more paining to come.
Weir and his director of photography, Russell Boyd, have made raptures out of the landscapes, but their heartfelt subject is the face. In the desert, for instance, there is a breathtaking affinity between the ochre and red immensity and the ruined face of Ed
Harris, who plays an American in the gulag, “Mister Smith,” a man scarred by the death of his son, foreboding about the danger of kindness, yet challenged by an encounter on the great journey. Harris has worked with Weir before—he was the dark genius director in The Truman Show—and he has become an actor of such gravity and presence he can make even Clint Eastwood or Robert Duvall (estimable figures) seem a little coy. In The Way Back, Harris is like isolated strings in a Shostakovich symphony, in love with Russia once but now horrified by it. He is only one of a memorable cast.
So this is a rave review. I am urging you to get to this film and let its power work. But it will not open in New York until later in January, and it only got a one-spot Los Angeles opening to qualify for the Oscars. But here are the larger surprises: The Way Back was declined by both the Cannes and the New York festivals of 2010. I have no wish to mock the people who made those decisions. I was on the selection committee for New York myself once, and I daresay I helped omit deserving films.
Still, the attitude of those festivals bears comment (I should add that The Way Back was accepted by Telluride, where it had its world premiere). We are at a point in our history of wondering what the movies have become and what their place is in our world. The Way Back can be called old-fashioned, not just because it is set in the 1940s, but because it draws on a humanism and a thrill at spectacle that were more common then. Have modern audiences really abandoned those things? The deserved success of The King’s Speech testifies to our appetite for small human achievements in well-told stories.
Another big film of 2010 was The Social Network—it will be in the Oscar running and it was a featured event at the New York Film Festival. It is fascinating, informative, and it’s surely current. But it never rises above a pitiless display of unpleasant people profiting from minor cruelties and indifference. And it’s worth saying that in the vast worldwide Facebook membership there are still faces struggling for survival like those in The Way Back. This may be an era when the movies have to decide whether their subject is self-
loathing or human aspiration. The audience will decide. Meanwhile, The Way Back is a great film.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.