The phrase “exiled to Siberia” still resonates as a severe sentence from which one does not return. For decades, Russia, and then the Soviet Union, exiled criminals and political prisoners, anyone deemed undesirable, to the remote, cold region of Siberia.
“The Way Back” is an epic adventure about such an escape from Siberia – cross-country on foot. The Oscar-nominated film is directed by the award-winning Peter Weir, who is no stranger to epics, having directed “Master And Commander” and “Gallipolli.”
Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Mark Strong and Jim Sturgess play members of an international band of prisoners escaping from a gulag during World War II, in one impressive tale of survival.
Based on Slavomir Rawicz’s acclaimed book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” and on other real-life experiences, this is indeed a long walk, thousands of miles.
The reason Siberia was such a harsh sentence is not just its coldness but its remote isolation. As one character notes, the prison walls in Siberia do not need to be strong because the whole countryside is the prison. In a sparsely-populated land with a harsh climate, hundreds of miles from anywhere, the few local people easily recognize outsiders. Bounties for escapees ensure they are reported.
Life is harsh in the ramshackle, overcrowded gulag. Prisoners starve on the meager rations, develop night-blindness and other illnesses from nutritional deficiencies. They wear filthy rags, infested with lice and fights break out over the warmer rags. Criminal gangs dominate the rickety barracks. New arrival Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Pole from a wooded region of the newly-occupied Poland, thinks only of return to Poland. A flinty older American prisoner, who only gives his name as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), offers to help organize an escape, noting the Pole’s backwoods skills and one “weakness” – kindness – might be useful for the older man’s survival.
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