BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision
"The Way Back" is an old fashioned, highly entertaining historical drama that Hollywood has all but forgotten how to make. Based on a true story, it follows seven eclectic inmates of a Russian prisoner of war camp located in Siberia when they escape during the early years of World War II. The camera then becomes one of their companions on their epic journey as they trek over 4,000 miles to eventual freedom in India, in the process crossing such formidable barriers as the Mongolian Desert and the Himalayan Mountains.
For you history buffs, you may recall several extraordinary movies set in German POW camps in WWII, most notably "Stalag 17" (1953), the unsurpassable "The Great Escape" (1963) and "King Rat" (1965). Without question, those three movies were powerful emotional dramas filled with great performances, and "The Way Back" shares their basic premise.
However, the fundamental difference that makes "The Way Back" unique is that while the other three above referred to films have a homogenous prison population filled only with allied soldiers, the prisoner of war camp in Siberia contained an amalgam of Polish soldiers, common Russian criminals and even an American expatriate who foolishly moved to Russia during the depression. Several languages are spoken in this brutal sub-arctic prison, and it keeps the inmates from easily forming a common bond.
For example, the underrated British actor Jim Sturgess plays a young Polish soldier, a recent arrival in the camp. When he offers to give his meager food ration to an elderly inmate who is obviously on the verge of starvation, Ed Harris, playing the American expatriate, stops him, warning him that "kindness can kill you here."
And that is not the only thing that can kill you in this remote, desolate penitentiary. Not only is the environment as foreboding as it is brutally cold, but some ruthless inmates who are little more than soulless thugs will slit your throat for little or no reason. Colin Farrell, continuing his penchant for portraying iconic characters, plays one of these ruffians, and the film is all the better for it.
Facing death at hard labor or an escape that seems doomed to failure, Harris' character, known only as "Mr. Smith," laconically speaks for all when he says, "Look, if we don't survive then at least we will die free men." Seven of them subsequently make a break, among them Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. What follows is a stunning quest as our collective group of misfits are eventually forced to bond in order to survive.
Director Peter Weir always has had the ability to bring to the screen historical dramas involving complex human relationships. Think of one of his earliest movies, "Gallipoli" (1982), in which he was able to show the brutal, senseless carnage of war through the eyes of two idealistic Australian soldiers in the doomed battle of the film's title in World War I. This is a movie worth hunting down, particularly because you will be able to discover what a great actor Mel Gibson was as a young man, long before he eventually lost his mind and became the rabid racist that now inhabits his body.