Way Back, The (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language
133 minutes


Rotten Tomatoes:
75% favorable, 6.8/10 average

$30 million

Box Office:
$20 million (3 U.S., 17 Intl.)

Written by: Peter Weir (Master and Commander, Green Card, Year of Living Dangerously, and Gallipoli) and Keith R. Clarke (First screenplay), based on the novel by Slavomir Rawicz.
Directed by: Peter Weir (Master and Commander, Truman Show, Fearless, Green Card, Dead Poets Society, Mosquito Coast, Witness, Year of Living Dangerously, and Gallipoli)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, and Jim Sturgess.
With: Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, and Saorise Ronan.

This is the true story of the daring and brutal escape of several men from a Russian Gulag in World War II.

Entertainment Value: B+
There is something about this movie which makes you want to sit and watch it all the way through, even though I would not call it “entertaining.” Compelling is the better word, and to see what these people endured and how they adapted to their hardships is captivating. Colin Farrell once again shows that he is a highly underutilized acting talent. This is really two movies, the part inside the camp and the part after they escape. Both are very good.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C, Language C
I hadn’t actually noticed the profanity, but it was perhaps in subtitles and fairly brief but F-based. We very briefly see some drawings of naked women. There is a small amount of alcohol consumption. But the real issue will be violence, which is fairly mild, including a stabbing, the general conditions in a gulag, people dying from exposure to elements, and extended scenes with people struggling against extreme physical hardships such as hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion.

Significant Content: B+
There are three main ideas here, one more obvious than the other two. The main idea is that man’s yearning for freedom knows know bounds, and he will rather risk death than to give up the chance for it. The second idea is that civilization is a matter of how you treat others under adversities that would seek to reduce you to barbarism. It is the utter privation of the escapees which only serves to prove their civility and humanity when they are in positions to be more ruthless. Kindness, rather than a weakness, is really the ultimate form of humanity. Finally, an easy-to-miss undertone of the movie is the question of who is really valuable in society. Each of the characters has a particular skill or contribution to make, and all have value: artist, comedian, priest, hunter, and cook.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Part of the art challenge in this movie is the simple fact that it’s very difficult to convey hunger through film, and yet hunger was easily the most formidable adversity the men faced. Dehydration, cold, heat, and exhaustion are all relatively easy compared to hunger. In showing what almost cannot be shown, the movie did pretty well, not great.

Discussion Questions:
~How much is freedom worth? Would the men who died in the escape over time have said that it was better to die trying to be free than to live in the gulag?
~Why do the men decide to let Irena travel with them? What does this say about them?
~Why do the men always choose to take time to bury their dead? What does this say about them? Compare it with the treatment of the dead in the gulag or mass graves?
~Kindness is clearly portrayed as a great human virtue and even source of strength. Do you think kindness is ever a weakness? Is God ever unkind?
~Mr. Smith declares early in the movie that this sort of a feat cannot be accomplished by yourself. Why does he say this? What is it about community that makes such things possible as would not be on your own?
~Why do you think so many movies have been made about World War II, and especially about Nazi Germany and the concentration camps, but so few about Communist Russia and particularly the gulags?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Passing around the village and other habitations. What do you think about the fact that they are escaping for their lives and yet other people are living their lives in relative normalcy at the same time?
~Valka’s decision at the border of Russia. Why does he do what he does? What does it show about him? Consider his chest tattoo in your answer. Does it seem incomprehensible to you that a criminal might also be patriotic?
~The very ending. Does this satisfy you? Does it seem to bring closure to everything else?

Overall Grade: B+
I don’t know of many movies about Russian gulags, in contrast with the abundance of movies about Nazi Germany, and I’m very grateful that someone finally made such a vivid one. Compared with Lawrence of Arabia or The Great Escape, of course this comes up short. But on it’s own, a fine effort from the very reliable Peter Weir.

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