As his follow-up to 2003’s excellent Master and Commander, Peter Weir made The Way Back, a film based on a supposedly true story about a group of prisoners escaping from a Gulag in Stalin-era Soviet Russia. Their journey takes them through the frozen tundra of Siberia, to Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, and finally over the Himalayas into India.
While it seems doubtful that the events of The Long Walk, the book on which the film is based, actually took place, there was still definite potential in the story for a grand, sweeping epic in a similar vein to the aforementioned Master and Commander. Unfortunately, The Way Back never really makes the most of this potential. It’s a good film, but nothing remarkable, and could very easily have been much better.
A lot of the problem, as often seems to be the case with films with large casts, is just that The Way Back is too short. At a little over two hours long, the film never gives the audience the chance to get to know the characters, even when they inevitably start dying off, and this makes it difficult to become emotionally invested in their journey. In trying to give everyone an equal share of the limelight, none of them end up standing out, to the point that I struggled to remember more than two of the characters’ names after it ended. That said, the acting is mostly good, particularly Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, and it’s nice to see Mark Strong not playing a villain for once.
The Way Back‘s shortness hurts it in other ways, too. Throughout the time I was watching it, I couldn’t help but feel that an awful lot of material had been cut in order to make it fit the usual two hour running time, and as a result a lot of what happens feels quite rushed. There are several occasions where it seems that entire scenes have been left out; the crossing of the Himalayas takes all of about five minutes, and we don’t even see them escape from the Gulag. One minute the characters are stockpiling food for their journey, the next the guards find a hole in the wire and the film cuts to the escapees fleeing through the forest. What should have been a big, climactic moment has no buildup at all and as a result leaves almost no impact.
In spite of all this, you can hardly fault The Way Back for spectacle. As might be expected from a film part funded by National Geographic, it features plenty of gorgeous scenery, and is very fond of expansive panorama shots to show off the extraordinary places the film takes place in; the Gobi Desert is particularly memorable. The Way Back spends a lot of time there, and the never-ending flat plain, with nothing but sand in every direction, does help compensate for the lack of character development in making the audience feel for the desperation of the characters’ plight.
The Way Back is definitely not a bad film, but it’s not one I can whole-heartedly recommend either. You could certainly do a lot worse, but given how great a lot of Peter Weir’s previous work has been, and how good the trailer was, it’s hard not to feel a little let down. Had it been half an hour longer it could have been something truly special