Deep into The Way Back, Peter Weir’s first film since 2003’s Master And Commander, a drifter (Saoirse Ronan) corners an escaped POW played by Ed Harris, and fills him in on the backstories of some of his fellow travelers. Harris has been with many of these men for months, even years, yet he seems at most marginally curious about their lives, though their survival is inextricably connected to his own. Within the context of the film, Harris’ attitude is completely understandable. For the prisoners, the past and the future don’t matter; all that matters is surviving the perilous present. The brutal realities of their situation have rendered all other concerns irrelevant.
Adapted from a memoir of wartime survival by Slavomir Rawicz, the veracity of which remains controversial, The Way Back casts Jim Sturgess as a Polish soldier sent to a Russian POW camp in Siberia during World War II. In the camp, Sturgess and five of his fellow soldiers make a daring escape, including a ruthlessly pragmatic Russian criminal played by Colin Farrell, as well as Harris’ brutally unsentimental but ultimately humane American.
The prisoners are threatened on all sides. There’s the danger of being caught and executed, but also the ever-present possibility of freezing to death in the merciless Siberian cold, or perishing from sun, heat, or dehydration once they reach the Himalayas. Weir gives the film an epic scope, framing his characters against giant, imposing vistas that highlight how inconsequential they appear against the vastness of nature. But Weir’s emphasis on the biggest picture transforms Sturgess, the film’s ostensible protagonist, into a blank. He fades into the background because he lacks the magnetism or presence of Farrell, who plays his character as a man who has lived like an animal for so long that he’s devolved into a borderline-feral state. Weir told the BBC that he considers The Way Back “essentially a fiction film”; the story of prisoners walking from Siberia to India certainly appears to be too melodramatic to be true, but in the end, it doesn’t particularly matter. Well-acted and artfully (though conventionally) made, The Way Back tells a compelling story, regardless of whether it’s based on truth or a fabrication.