Deep in Siberia, prison of nature,
Brig of the barbarous Soviet ship,
Men were convinced there could be no escapers;
No one could hope to survive such a trip.
Janusz, a Pole locked away by betrayal,
Hoped and gave hope when it nearly was dead.
Rushing from Russians through snow-glutted gale,
Seven escaped from the Gulag and fled.
Journeying south through the frost and the firs,
Through hunger and fears that they may not arrive,
Ever they traveled with personal spurs,
Keeping the world-weary rovers alive.
Onward and onward, from hills unto lakes,
Lakes unto hills unto plains unto sand,
Onward through nature’s unbearable aches,
Onward they walked over merciless land.
Husband and artist, accountant and priest,
Father and criminal—all carried on.
Though they were free, some were further released
To journey no farther until the last dawn.
Sojourning south through the sting of the sun,
Through thirst and through fears that they may not arrive,
Ever they traveled till travels were done,
Clinging to that which keeps all men alive.

(On this eighteenth of April, in honor of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” one of my favorite poems, the NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem about an urgent, epic journey. This quest certainly qualifies.)

Not to be confused with the 2013 coming-of-age film The Way, Way Back, The Way Back is the very definition of an epic, “based-on-a-true-story” journey, drawing its inspiration from Slawomir Rawicz’s 1956 memoir The Long Walk. While the truth of the story has been questioned over the years, several similar stories exist, and though the film also takes some artistic liberties, its authenticity concerning the Soviet Gulag was well-researched. The Way Back has even been called the first Hollywood film to tackle a tale of the Communist Gulags.

Regardless of its source material’s accuracy, The Way Back is a moving and well-acted tribute to what is indeed a very long walk, 4000 miles from Siberia to India, through hostile terrains of all kinds. Like past hits (Witness, The Truman Show), director Peter Weir brings an eye for detail and beauty, particularly in the sweeping landscapes the characters traverse. While the cinematography alone is enough to recommend the film, the acting is equally outstanding. Several lesser-known actors from Eastern Europe are joined by Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Mark Strong and Saoirse Ronan, giving varied performances that never falter in their emotional resonance. Though the film’s lone Oscar nomination was for Best Makeup (lost to The Wolfman), it was an underrated spurn for the Academy to omit any directing or acting nominations, especially for Sturgess and Harris.

While The Way Back features much suffering and heartache, it’s a thankfully restrained portrait of an awe-inspiring escape to freedom, one which stands on its own with limited references to jailbreak predecessors like The Great Escape (one escapee is somewhat blind, but that’s about it). My only qualm about the film is that it took some effort to understand the Eastern European accents, mainly Colin Farrell’s; it’s a prime example of a film best seen with subtitles too, just as an added reference.

While the film could have ended with a simple arrival in India, its poignancy takes a dramatic surge as one long walk becomes an even longer walk, its length adding to its tear-jerking potential. While its positive reviews were halfhearted for the most part, I consider The Way Back to rank among Weir’s finest films and proof that he is still an expert director.

Best line: (Mr. Smith) “In the camps, some saw death as freedom.”   (Janusz) “Then why didn’t you just kill yourself?”   (Mr. Smith) “Survival was a kind of protest. Being alive was my punishment.”

Rank: List-Worthy

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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