The Way Back (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Review)
April 21, 2011 by Dennis Amith
An amazing, heartbreaking film that captures the human spirit of wanting to live another day. “The Way Back” also serves as a reminder of real events of the prisoners (political activists and criminals) who were forced into slave labor in Russian concentration camps (Gulags). Another magnificent film from Peter Weir!
Images courtesy of © 2010 Siberian Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: The Way Back
FILM RELEASE DATE: 2010
DURATION: 133 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (2:35:1), English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Subtitles: English SDH and Spanish
COMPANY: Image Entertainment
RATED: PG-13 (Violent Content, Depiction of Physical Hardships, a Nude Image and Brief Strong Language)
RELEASE DATE: April 19, 2011
Directed by Peter Weir
Based on the novel “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz
Screenplay by Peter Weir, Keith R. Clarke
Produced by Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin, Nigel Sinclair, Peter Weir
Executive Produced by Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouei, Tobin Armbrust, Ed Borgerding, Keith R. Clarke, Guy East, Jake Eberts, Simon Oakes, John Ptak, Scott Rudin, Jonathan Schwartz
Co-Executive Producer: Alexander Yves Brunner, Roee Sharon
Associate Producer: Marius A. Markevicius
Line Producer: Robert Huberman, Dileep Singh Rathore
Music by Burkhard von Dallwitz
Cinematography by Russell Boyd
Edited by Lee Smith
Casting by Lina Todd
Production Design by John Stoddart
Art Direction by Kes Bonnet
Costume Design by Wendy Stites
Dragos Bucur as Zoran
Colin Farrell as Valka
Ed Harris as Mr. Smith
Alexandru Potocean as Tomasz
Saoirse Ronan as Irena
Gustaf Skarsgard as voss
Mark Storng as Khabarov
Jim Sturgess as Janusz
Sebastian Urzendowsky as Kazik
Four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris (Apollo 13), Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) and Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) and Colin Farrell (In Bruges) star in this epic saga of survival from six-time Oscar-nominee Peter Weir (Witness, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). Inspired by an incredible true story, THE WAY BACK begins in 1940 when seven prisoners attempt the impossible: escape from a brutal Siberian gulag. Thus begins a treacherous 4,500-mile trek to freedom across the world’s most merciless landscapes. They have little food and few supplies. They don’t know or trust each other. But together, they must withstand nature at its most extreme. Their humanity is further tested when they meet a teenage runaway who begs to join them on their quest. A compelling testament to the human spirit, this gripping wilderness adventure is “Peter Weir at his hypnotic best” (Telluride Film Festival).
The Way Back – Film Clip: “Sandstorm”
The Way Back – Film Clip: “Escape!”
The Way Back – Film Clip: “Formulating A Plan”
From director Peter Weir (“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, “The Truman Show” and “Dead Poets Society”) comes a loosely-based film adaptation from Slawomir Rawicz’s book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” based on Rawicz’ alleged experience as a polish POW in the Soviet gulag (forced slave labor camp) and how he and six others escaped the Siberian gulag and walked from Siberia all the way to India with many hardships and only a few survived the dangerous trek by foot.
The film would be co-written by Weir and Keith R. Clarke and feature cinematography by Russell Boyd (“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, “Liar Liar”, “Ghost Rider”) and music by Burkhard von Dallwitz (“The Truman Show”). The film would be nominated for Oscar in 2011 for “Best Achievement in Makeup”.
The film begins with a Polish soldier named Janusz (played by Jim Sturgess, “21”, “Across the Universe”) who is accused of talking bad about the Soviet leadership (in the 1930’s, anyone speaking bad about the Russian leadership were sentenced to 25-years in the gulag). His wife confesses to the Russians that Janusz did speak ill will about the Russians and despite Janusz saying he didn’t and feeling his wife was forced to make a wrong confession, he is convicted and sentenced to 25-years in a gulag where many criminals and political prisoners are forced into hard, slave labor as they worked in the mines and forestry no matter how bad the conditions are.
While at the prison, he observes the people inside and learns that criminals have their own code on how people should behave. One of those harsh criminals include Valka (played by Colin Farrell, “Alexander”, “Phone Booth”, “Miami Vice”) who carries a sharp knife which he calls “The wolf” and is not afraid to kill anyone.
Inside the gulag, Janusz meets Mr. Smith (played by Ed Harris), an American who was framed of being a foreign spy but in truth actually moved along with his young son to work in Russia (note: Many Americans moved to Russia to work in the automobile industry and Moscow Metro and some were framed for being spies and sentenced to 25-years in the gulag).
After hearing how there is a wired gate that is cut and can be a way to escape, Mr. Smith, Valka and a three other prisoners know they will not survive the gulag if they continue to stay. So, together they make the pact of escaping. And since Janusz is a trained nature tracker, they make a plan to escape from the Siberian gulag and make it to the Mongolian border.
As the six manage to escape the gulag and know that the Russians will hunt them down, the group continue to walk and know they must face the extreme cold icy weather and find ways to survive. And as one of their own succumbs to the cold and icy weather, the five must keep going.
As the season changes from winter to spring and the group continue their walk to Mongolia, they rely on nature to survive. But they also realize that they are being followed and the person following them is a 17-year-old teenager named Irena (played by Saoirse Ronan, “Atonement”, “The Lovely Bones”), a young woman who has also escaped and hopes she can join the men to wherever they are going and be free of communism.
But when they arrive to Mongolia, they find out that communism has reached that country and are working with Lenin.
With their goal of going to Mongolia and becoming free now down the drain, Janusz convinces everyone to keep walking and this time, they will go through China and to India. But to do that, they must brave through intense heat in the deserts of Mongolia and then travel through the Himalayas to reach India.
As the group knows they will have to overcome the most difficult weather conditions and live day-by-day to survive with hardly any food or water, who will survive and make it to India and be free?
“The Way Back” is presented in 1080p High Definition (widescreen 2:35:1) and because Peter Weir wanted to capture the authenticity of the grueling trek through the snow, the desert, lush scenery and literally showcase the trek from Siberia to India, the actors including Weir and the crew, knew that they had to brave the elements as well.
So, the majority of all shots are outdoors, shot in Bulgaria and other countries and everyone had to take on the cold weather, including a sandstorm in the desert. What you see in the film of showcasing the human spirit and adversity through the worst conditions, the talent and crew for this film also had to bare with those bad conditions as well. Knowing how it is to survive in the snow and deserts and no matter how grueling the part was, the talent were ready to make this film feel authentic.
And that’s what I really enjoyed about the look and feel of this film was the fact that Peter Weir went for realism and trusted cinematographer Russell Boyd, who he worked with on “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and capturing the breathtaking locations but also making sure the look and feel of the film is authentic and real.
Presented in 1080p High Definition (Widescreen 2:35:1), “The Way Back” looks absolutely fantastic on Blu-ray. The amount of detail is tremendous. From the dirt and grime on the character’s bodies, their blister, callous-filled feet. The damage their skin took from walking through intense cold weather especially in the hot desert. You can see the cracks and dry skin that had been under the sun too long. Makeup was wonderful during those scenes. Blacks are nice and deep, skin tones go along with the territory and what kind of weather the characters are battling and
I detected no banding, no artifacts and no sever edge enhancement. For the most part, “The Way Back” looks fantastic on Blu-ray!
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“The Way Back” is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. And this is a film that utilizes the surround channels quite well. From scenes where they are in the gulag, you can hear ambiance of people talking to people hitting or dropping objects around them. To the sound of the cracked ice on the river, the sandstorm on the desert, the wind from the snow storm, the sounds of leaves rustling, because a lot of these scenes were shot outdoors, you hear the surround channels being used extremely well for the film.
For the most part, I felt the lossless soundtrack worked very well for “The Way Back”. Dialogue is clear and understandable but once again, if you have surround channels speakers for your home theater, there is a good utilization for the film’s ambiance and those watching the film should feel happy of how audio was used for this film.
Subtitles are presented in English SDH and Spanish.
“The Way Back” comes with special features presented in standard definition and in Dolby Digital Stereo, PCM Stereo:
- Behind-the-Scenes Featurette – (30:57) A featurette showcasing how far the talent and the crew went in trying to make the film feel and look authentic. We learn how Peter Weir found the locations of where to shoot the film and also interviews with the cast who talk about their role and the film and how many people are unaware of what took place in the gulag back the late ’30s. Presented in 480i Standard Definition.
- Trailer – (2:00) Original theatrical trailer for “The Way Back”. Presented in 480i Standard Definition.
There have been a good number of war-related survival films that were based on real life events and although there is quite a bit of debate on Slawomir Rawicz’ account of escaping a Siberian prison and that he and a few prisoners making that long walk from Siberia to India, we do know that there was an account by Captain Rupert Mayne, an intelligence officer in Calcutta that he debriefed individuals who escaped from a Siberian camp.
The fact is that there aren’t so many films on an international level that told the world of the suffering of many people living in Russia who were thrown into the gulag and were literally slaves that were exposed to the harshest weather conditions to work on mines, cut down trees and those who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad. They were not treated well and the fact that so many foreigners living in Russia at the time, were treated as spies or not loyal to the Russian leadership were sentenced to 25-years in the gulag in the worst conditions imaginable. And this included criminals convicted of petty crimes such as telling a joke about the government, those with unexcused absences from work and those who committed petty theft. And figures show that over a million people died in the gulag from 1929-1953.
The popularity of Rawicz’ book was because it was about a man’s determination to live and he and others willing to face incredible odds. And before anyone can say, we’ve seen this type of film before… definitely not in this manner.
In the 2008 film “Defiance”, another incredible survival film, we watched as 1,200 Jews tried to survive in a forest through harsh conditions while being hunted. In 1971, there was Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout”, a group of two young children trying to survive the harsh Australian outback alone but are able to find help courtesy of a young aborigine. In 1963, Kon Ichikawa’s film “Alone Across the Pacific”, we watched as one man sailed from Japan to San Francisco and braved the terrifying ocean and many times surviving moments where he could have easily died.
There are many films of one’s survival in harsh conditions, there are films of people stuck in the middle of nowhere trying to survive and yes, the underlying theme of these films is about survival. But what makes “The Way Back” so interesting is that many people are not familiar with the story of the Russian gulag, rich and poor who were put into slave camps for petty things. Granted, there were hardcore criminals that were there but there were also a lot of people put there because they voiced against communism. And even if they didn’t, because you were a foreigner, many were framed and put in a gulag.
So, the character of Mr. Smith is part of an unwritten chapter of foreign prisoners of war that people probably didn’t know happened. It is said that an estimated 20,000-30,000 American and British people and soldiers were transferred from Nazi prison camps to Russian gulag and were used by Stalin as a bargaining chip for the release of Russian POW’s who fought for Nazi Germany. Stalin wanted to punish his countrymen’s traitors, American wouldn’t allow it and thus, Americans that they kept as POW were forced to work in the gulag. There is not much written about what happened to these people. If they lived and died in the gulag, were they released after the war? But Mr. Smith is an example of a man who like others, wanted to make a living and so he and took his son to Russia to work and when they were framed for being spies, his teenage son was tortured and killed, while he lived and was forced to work in the gulag. It makes you wonder how many Mr. Smith’s were there?
In “The Way Back”, we also learn about characters who were accountants, chefs and people who were sent to the gulag to serve hard labor and either they talked against communism or framed for it, they lost everything and many felt they would die in the gulag.
Which leads us to the character of Janusz, a man who was a young Polish soldier, who’s wife was tortured and forced to lie about her husband speaking against Russian leadership. It didn’t matter if he didn’t, the fact he was Polish, he was going to be sent to the gulag.
It is well-documented about the problems between Russia and Poland and what transpired from World War II and on. Hitler attacked Poland from the West and a pact was made between Hitler and Stalin which led to the Soviet Union invading Poland from the East. Many people in Poland were victims of Communism and deported to Siberian gulag and many died, while many Jews from Poland were sent to Nazi concentration camps.
In real life, “The Long Walk” writer Slawomir Rawicz was a Polish Army lieutenant who was imprisoned by the Soviets after the German-Soviet invasion. Because he had a Russian mother, he learned to speak Russian. When Germany and Russia invaded Poland and the country was defeated, he went home and was arrested by the NKVD (secret police organization of the Soviet Union), interrogated and they tried to make him confess that he was a spy and like many people like him, were forced to serve 25-years of hard labor in a gulag. Thousands of Polish people were charged were espionage and forced to work in a gulag.
And although the “gulag” portion is only a small part of this film, there is so much story to tell about this tragic part of time because many people are unaware of it.
And then we have those who escaped the gulag, in the case of Rawicz, like the film, he escaped with another five other men and later joined by a 17-year-old Polish girl. Just the thought of these people having to travel on foot from Siberia to India is shocking. From the freezing cold temperatures in Siberia, the hot and lifeless Gobi desert and then climbing over the Himalayas. It seems impossible but Rawicz claims that he did it, a few other corroborate the story of people who did escape from Siberia to India but because of the harsh climates and lack of documentation, there are critics out there who don’t believe it happened and belief that no one could have survived the 4,500 mile trek barely with enough food and water.
For me, I’m a big believer in the human spirit and the will to live. The insurmountable odds that a person may find against them but are willing to keep going in order to be free. And whether or not it is fact of fiction, I believe that filmmaker Peter Weir has crafted a film that captures that human spirit but also showing us the damage that a human body can take. As mentioned earlier, the makeup in showing us these individuals in the worst condition as they go from the frozen landscape and then are scorched by the heat of the Gobi desert is unthinkable but Weir and crew are able to show us the sun damage, the damage on their feet and the skin without any water and damaged by the sun. And yet, a cinematographer capturing these locations in Bulgaria and other countries in giving us an idea of the desolation of the desert, the cold Siberia and more.
It’s that goal of trying to achieve authenticity is what I found so amazing. And as you will see on the special features, the talent and crew of the film also had to bare with the elements, so it was dangerous. In fact, while they were filming in the desert, they were also nearly blanketed by a sandstorm.
So, there were a lot of positives for me of why I enjoyed this film. It was truly a survival film taking place in vast regions under different types of harsh conditions, you just don’t see films like this being made. If there is one thing that people may have a hard time with is the accents but I wasn’t too bothered by it. According to Rawicz book, his trek was with two Poles, a Latvian, a Czeck, an American and a 17-year-old Polish girl. I’m sure it was difficult for them to communicate but for this film, I felt the talent did a very good job.
The Blu-ray release was what I expected. The PQ was beautiful when we see the cinematography capture these areas but as beautiful the area may be or how great it looked on the PQ, the biggest winner was how the picture quality captured the damage of the human body. We can see the detail of the burnmarks and dryness of the skin, the damage from the long walk, the dirt and grime on the characters. The audio was also well done as there are many moments where you will hear conversations, objects, birds, leaves, trees, wind and other ambiance coming from the surround channel. Dialogue was clear, but because of the accents, there were times I needed to turn the subtitles on.
As for special features, I wish there was an audio commentary or more than just the behind-the-scenes making of. I also felt that there could have been more added to this film. Possibly a featurette with survivors of the gulag or something that we would expect in a release of a film of this caliber.
But overall, “The Way Back” was an enjoyable, heartbreaking and amazing film. I definitely recommend it!
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