Monday, January 24, 2011

The Way Back

THE WAY BACK                                                       B                     
USA  (133 mi)  2010  d:  Peter Weir

Peter Weir hasn’t made a film in 8 years, which is a staggering revelation considering the superb craftsmanship associated with his films, especially the breathtaking visualizations.  Perhaps he hasn’t been able to raise funds after the mixed reception of his last work, MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (2003), which played fast and loose with the historical facts, actually changing the storyline from the book upon which the movie was based in order to fit the gung-ho George W. Bush saber rattling war scenario that was taking place at that time.  This is a National Geographic funded project which allows him to film in some of the more remote areas of the globe, based on a 1955 book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slawomir Rawicz, where he and several others escaped from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and in a year’s time walked 4000 miles from Siberia, finding and following Lake Baikal, trekking past the Tran Siberian railway to Outer Mongolia (also Communist), across the Gobi Desert, past the Great Wall of China (still Communist) into the Himalayan Mountains, initially finding refuge in Tibet, but continuing their trek into India where the British government at the time was staunchly against both the Nazi’s and the Russians, though the Russians were a war ally.  There has been some controversy about the book, as it was initially released as the author’s own story, but when it was revealed afterwards that he was released by the Russians under a 1942 amnesty agreement, Rawicz indicated it is actually the story of three Polish men who recounted their stories to him, one of whom is a former Polish soldier, Witold Glinski. 

Described as the first Hollywood film about the Soviet gulag, this overly detached and in the end unengaging film opens in Poland in 1940 when it was invaded to the West by Hitler and the Nazi’s, and from the East by Stalin and the Russians, opening with a Stalinest interrogation sending a Polish citizen to a Russian gulag for twenty years for making negative statements about Stalin.  The conditions there are decripit, with prisoners starving from lack of adequate food, housing prisoners with professional killers who run the inside of the prisons with smuggled weapons.  In reality, these were forced labor camps, something that was common in both Japan and China during this same time period, where the conditions were so brutal that escape seemed the only viable option.  In Siberia, however, the natural elements are so severe, and the distance so great, that chances of survival from an escape are rare to slim.  This film is reminiscent of the epic Japanese War Trilogy THE HUMAN CONDITION (1959-61), a three part drama by Masaki Kobayashi who documents similar conditions when defeated Japanese soldiers were simply abandoned and left on the mainland of Manchuria, China and had little hopes of ever finding their way back home, where the film follows the futile efforts of one soldier who escaped from a Russian gulag only to wander endlessly, starving for days on end without food, making his way alone through the vast emptiness of the barren landscape, eventually succumbing to weakness and starvation, left to die alone, frozen in the bleak emptiness of a desolate winter.  These exact same circumstances await the seven escapees, one of whom freezes to death the very first night. 

Featuring breathtaking cinematography by Russell Boyd, the humans are specks on the landscape as they initially make their way out of the Siberian forest before becoming engulfed in the immensity of the world around them, afraid to show themselves in Stalinest nations for fear they’d be turned back in to the authorities, so they instead have to creep around towns and hide where they could.  When they reach flat landscapes, it’s most treacherous, as it’s also harder to find food and water out in the open spaces.  One of the film’s failings is the inability to deal with the subject of starvation, which should have been everpresent throughout the journey, yet they somewhat nonchalantly find food all too easily.  Finding water in the desert was truly miraculous, but there was very little tension established about finding food.  Instead when people started to physically deteriorate, attention was paid to physical injuries or ailments, but no words spoken about food, which had to have been on their minds, perhaps even hallucinating about it.  Also, some of the arduous nature of their adventure is glossed over, as the seasons change from ferocious winter storms to spring pretty quickly.  The film also does little to delineate between the characters, where the audience never develops an emotional attachment to any of them, or understands why one is considered the navigator or leader, when he’s actually the youngest or newest prisoner, which makes little sense.  Who made him in charge?  In reality, it’s human nature for there to have been some dissension in the ranks over leadership, yet in this film there was no discussion whatsoever.  It was this lack of tension or screen intensity between the characters that left a feeling of vague disconnection with the audience, where the enormity of what was taking place rarely developed into an acute sense of awareness or personal triumph, never really becoming quite so intensely powerful as Phillip Noyce’s RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (2002), which remains the definitive film on the subject, perhaps because the journey coincided with monumental social changes, so the epic adventure was superbly and dramatically placed in historical context.    

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