“The Way Back” tells the story of seven prisoners of war who escaped a Siberian Gulag and made their way to India, a 4,000 mile trek. This incredible journey, supposedly based on true events, should have made an enthralling film; however, the editing and directing prevented it from reaching its true potential.
“The Way Back” stars Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris. The performances are actually quite strong in an otherwise weak film — the accents of every actor are believable and well-executed. However, due to directorial or screenplay shortfalls, the characters are never fully fleshed out or developed.
Throughout the film, I found it hard to differentiate the prisoners from one another — not only did they all look alike, but very few had notable or defining attributes.
Colin Farrell’s character and his performance were the exception. He played Valka, a tough and intimidating Russian inmate who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the escapees. His brutish nature combined with his simple intellect resulted in some of the few truly memorable funny and quotable moments in the film.
Unfortunately, Farrell’s screen time is short, but Harris and Sturgess somewhat make up for it later on. Harris plays “Mr. Smith,” the mysterious, lone American prisoner, while Sturgess portrays Janusz, a Polish inmate and the brains of the escape. We certainly empathize with these characters, but despite their strong performances, the journey still ends up feeling boring.
The supposed trek is an adaptation of real events — the film is loosely based on the memoir “The Long Walk” by Slawomir Rawicz. He claimed that he escaped from a Gulag and made the incredible adventure. His book sold over 500,000 copies. However, in 2006, the BBC found records that essentially disproved Rawicz account — in 1942 he had actually been released by the USSR. In spite of the fact that the events of the story never happened, the film would still have made a gripping tale (just maybe without the “Inspired by real events” tagline on the poster).
The movie involved prison escape, wilderness survival and harsh climates (both desert and frozen tundra) across 4,000 miles of Asia. This plot feels like it should have been incredible and impossible to mess up. However, director Peter Weir (“Master and Commander,” “Dead Poets Society,” “The Truman Show”) managed to do so.
Within the first minute of the film, we learn that only four of the prisoners make it through the trek alive. This really kills the suspense for the rest of the movie — I found myself waiting for each subsequent character to die off until there were four left. Also, the three characters that do eventually die are the least fleshed out of the seven — from the beginning of the movie, it is abundantly clear who will survive and who will succumb to the harsh elements.
The film was also scarce on the details. The unrelenting and harsh environment was the one true obstacle in the way of the prisoners, and yet we never received hard details on how they actually braved the elements.
How they managed to survive the bitter cold in Siberia, the brutal heat in the Gobi Desert and the dangers of the Himalayas were entirely glanced over. The movie essentially just showed our group of protagonists walking, non-stop for the over-two-hour running time.
The movie also skimmed over the prison escape itself. What could have been another exciting sequence was over in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Also, the editing in this scene was particularly disconcerting. The camera cut way too quickly and disoriented the viewer — the scene finished before we even knew what happened.
The editing throughout the film followed suit — between each scene of walking, there were little to no good transitions. Cuts were abrupt and pulled the audience out of the film. The pacing overall was quite slow, but would randomly pick up in scenes of no particular consequence to the overall plot.
The editing, combined with the poor character development and lack of story depth, resulted in a movie that definitely did not live up to its potential. “The Way Back” opened on Friday, Jan. 21 and grossed a meager $1.2 million.
Penney is a member of the class of 2012.