The Way Back (2010)

 

 

 

Director:     .

Starring:     Colin Farrell (Valka), Mark Strong (Khabarov), Saoirse Ronan (Irena), Jim Sturgess (Janusz), Ed Harris (Mr. Smith), Gustaf Skarsgård (Voss), Alexandru Potocean (Tomasz), Sebastian Urzendowsky (Kazik), Dragos Bucur (Zoran), Zahary Baharov (Interrogator), Sally E. Brunski (Janusz's Wife, 1939), Igor Gnezdilov (Bohdan), Dejan Angelov (Andrei), Stanislav Pishtalov (Commandant), Mariy Grigorov (Lazar).

1940, seven prisoners attempt the impossible: escape from a brutal Siberian gulag 

 

 

Spoiler Warning:

In 1941 three men walked out of the Himalayas into India.  They had survived a 4,000 miles walk to freedom.  This film is dedicated to them. 

September 1, 1939.  Hitler invades Poland from the West.  Several days later Stalin invades from the East.  They divide the country between them. 

A Polish prisoner won't sign his confession.  So a female witness is brought in to testify against him.  The witness says the man's name is Janusz Wieszczek, and he is her husband. She says Janusz is critical of the Party and especially so of Stalin.  Janusz has also spied for foreign powers. 

Siberia, 1940.  The newcomers are being brought in and the older prisoners are being taken out on work details. The men of the two groups look at each other as they pass. 

A prison official talks to the newcomers as the enemies of Russia.  He says that what keeps the prisoners imprisoned is the five million square miles of Siberia.  "Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy.  If nature doesn't kill you . . . the locals will."

The incoming men have all their hair cut off.  One of the newcomers, Janusz, gives some of his soup to a starving man.  An old American named Mr. Smith says if the young man wants to live, he can't give half his rations to a man who is going to be dead by morning.  A man named Khabarov, Andrei Timofeyevich, tells the young man that Smith is an American.  The young fellow asks how and why is an American here?  Khabarov says that Stalin hates foreigners too, especially Poles, like the young man is.  The older man then asks what is Janusz in for?  For being a spy.  His sentence is for 20 years.  Khabarov says he's in for ten years for sabotage. 

Khabarov tell Janusz to watch out for the Urki, who are murderers and thieves.  The guards let the Urki run things and they are to be feared.  Khabarov knows these things because he's been here 11 months and 29 days. 

The head man in the barracks is Valka.  He tells a man to give him his sweater.  The guy wants to give Valka his jacket instead.  So Valika knives the man and takes his sweater. 

Khabarov knows that Janusz wants to break out of the gulag.  He says it can be done.  They are about 500 kilometers (311 miles) north of Lake Baikal.  Then they could cross the border.  Then they could cross the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Mongolian border and freedom.  They will, however, have to wait until autumn comes.   They have to wait because it's a thousand kilometers to the border and maybe a bit more.  They will have to stockpile food. 

The guys go out on a work detail, but the weather turns very bad.  Smith tells the guards to put the men into the forest to prevent any more men dropping dead due to the freezing weather.  The guard refuses to do that, so Smith walks into the forest by himself.  The guard threatens to shoot Smith, but he just keeps walking.  So the guard decides to take the men into the forest.  There the men build little shelters to protect them from the fierce wind. They sit very close to each other inside. The men start to introduce themselves.  Zoran says his name and that he is from Yugoslavia.  Then there's Janusz, Kazik and Horodinsky.  Then there's Voss, a Latvian. 

Back in the barracks, Smith and Janusz are selected to go into the mines.  Janusz gets a panic attack in the mines.  Smith saves him be grabbing and pulling him back in before a Russian guard can shoot him.  Janusz starts saying that it can done.  Smith asks him what is he talking about?  It can be done.  They can get out of here.  He says Khabarov knows an exit way.  Smith tells Janusz that Khabarov has no intention of getting out.  He is like a leech, who sucks the young men's initiative and strength out of them so that that he Khabarov can go on living.  He says when he first came here, Khabarov told him the same things.  Janusz says that Smith is really very cynical.  Smith says he's still living, which they might not be much longer if they are kept working in the mines.  He goes on to say that if Janusz is really ready to escape, he will go with Janusz. 

Janusz tests Khabarov by telling him that they must go now and not wait.  The winds are so strong that they will bury their foot prints with snow.  Khabarov gives all kinds of good reasons for not going. 

Valka senses that Janusz is planning an escape.  He says that he has so much gambling debts that they are going to kill him.  Valka holds his knife to Janusz's throat and tells him he must get him (Valka) out of the gulag. 

All of a sudden the men stop the generator cutting he power.  They get out and start running away.  It is a virtual blizzard outside, but that will help the prisoners if they can just keep pushing onward.  They stop to strip bark off of birch trees to make masks for the men.   Then they continue on. 

The men throw all their food into one bag to be shared equally.  There are seven men in all. 

Kazik goes looking for sticks for a fire.  The problem is that he has night blindness and gets lost.  The men go out calling for him.  Kazik calls out for Janusz.  Then he halucinates and decides to go to sleep.  Later the men find Kazik frozen just yards away from their encampment.  Now there are six men left. 

Valka speaks to Janusz of eating the funny man, Zoran, first.  Janusz says they will get more fish on Lake Baikal. 

The wolves have killed an animal.  The men chase the wolves off so they can have what's left. 

Janusz now says he will go look for Lake Baikal.  If he finds it, he will be back in about a week. 

Janusz finds the lake and returns  He tells the men that it's a three days journey from here.  The lake is huge.  [The lake is the largest fresh water lake in the world.  It is is a rift lake in the south of the Russian region of Siberia, between the Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and the Buryat Republic to the southeast.]

The men walk along Lake Baikal heading south toward Mongolia.  They see that somebody is following them.  The stranger turns out to be a young Polish woman who has escaped from a Russian collective farm. They decide not to take her with them because she would slow them down and eat up their food.  The problem is that the woman keeps following them. 

The men catch a reindeer who is stuck in the mud.  They kill the reindeer and have it for supper.  The artist in the group goes and brings the girl Irena into the group to have some food with them.  So now the group has seven members again.  The only man opposed to letting her come was Smith.  So Irena concentrates on making fiends with Smith.  She tells him that her parents are dead.  The Russians killed them.  Smith catches her in a lie.  He tells her not to lie to him again for they have had too many lies.

The group comes to a village, but decides to go around it.  As they do so, Valka disappears.  The group is worried about what Valka might be doing. 

Valka comes back with plenty of food.  The group has a little feast.  Irena says her parents were Polish communists and they took the children to live in Moscow to work for the revolution.  Her parents were arrested in 1937 for being spies.  Her brother died and she was put in an orphanage.  They called her Rykov, but her Polish surname is Zielinska.  So she ran away. 

It's mosquito season at Lake Baikal and the seven are being drivien crazy by the swarming masses of mosquitoes.  Finally, Zoran rushes over to a local man and asks him how they keep the mosquitoes off them?s  They use a collar made from a plant around their necks.  So now the seven wear the collars. 

The team reaches the southern end of Lake Baikal.  [Lake Baikal is 636 km (395 mi) long.] 

They reach the railroad tracks.  Just on the other side of the tracks is the Mongolian border, four or five days walk. 

Crossing over into Mongolia, Valka decides to stay in the Soviet union.  So now they are back down to six people.  Irena sees a picture of Stalin on the border.  She tells the others that Mongolia is under communism.  They walk on and see a Buddhist temple.  They decide to check it out.  The temple is in ruins and apparently completely abandoned. 

The group now decides to go into Tibet and cross over into India.  And that means they will have to walk over the Himalaya Mountains. 

Some Mongolian people on horseback ride up fast on the group.  The elder asks if they are Russian?  The group elder, says no, they are Americans.  And is the woman his wife?  No, his daughter. And they are on their way to Tibet.  So the Mongolians now take off riding as fast out as they came in fast.

The groups walks on.  They come to a Mongolian boy on a horse.  He drops a large water bag at their feet and takes off in a flash. 

Now before them lies the Gobi desert.  [The Gobi desert covers parts of northern and northwestern China, and of southern Mongolia.  It is 800 km (500 mi) from north to south.]  They travel by night. 

They find a water well and use every container they have filled to the brim.  They run into a dust storm.   

One day Irena faints.  Then she faints again.  Andrejs the artist picks her up and carries her.  After awhile, she tells the artist to put her on the ground.  There she dies.  They bury Irena and put a cross over the grave.  And now they are five.

The artist dies.  And now they are four. 

Mister Smith tells the guys to go on without him.  Janusz tells the other two to go on ahead and they will catch up with them later.    At night the two ahead of the other two make a fire.  Janusz and Smith catch up with them. 

The four reach a river and lay in its waters. 

They reach Tibet.  A local finds the four men.  They follow him and he points toward a city and says:  Lhasa.  And then India lies over the Himalaya Mountains. 

They make it to Lhasa.  One of their visitors is a man who tells them the way to India.  There is a track to Sikkim over the mountains.  [Sikkim is a landlocked Indian state located in the Himalayan mountains, and is bordered by Nepal to the west, China's Tibet Autonomous Region to the north and east, and Bhutan to the east.]  But the man says that they must wait until spring to make the trek. 

Smith tells the guys that he's going to Lhasa.  He has a contact who will get him to an American mission and they will get him back to America.  Zoran is disappointed that Smith won't be with them when they get to India.  He says that Smith, like all Americans, is just looking out for number one, as the Americans say.  Smith tells Zoran that they have already made it.  They escaped and now they're just going home.  That eases Zoran's mind.

In the morning Janusz starts the trek.  The two other guys wanted to go in spring, but Janusz couldn't wait.  So the two set out after Janusz.  They catch up with him. 

The women in the Indian agricultural fields see them. They and the children are all excited to see them.  Namaste.  Welcome to India.  When the people learn that the three men walked all the way from Siberia, they clap for the men. 

May 8, 1945.  Victory in Europe. 

1945-1948.  The Soviet Union imposes communism in Poland.  An 'Iron Curtain' falls over Eastern Europe. 

1956.  Hungarian Uprising is put down by the Soviets. 

1961.  The Berlin Wall goes up. 

1968.  The Soviet Union sends troops into Prague. 

1980.  Polish Solidarity Movement challenges communism. 

1989.  Communism collapses.  Poland free. 

Janusz serves in the Polish army.  He reunites with his wife. 

 

What a terrible gulag system Stalin built.  And yet despite all the inhumanity of Stalin some people escaped, giving us a magnificent survival story.   Seven men escape from a Siberian gulag.  Along the way they are joined by a woman refugee.  In 1941 three men walked out of the Himalayas of Tibet and into India. They lost three of their group to death.  But the others all made it.  The three who reached India went through the cold of Siberia and into heat of the desert in Gobi Desert in Mongolia, to the freezing cold of the Himalayas in Tibet and then to Sikkim, India.  You have to admire their perseverance against countless problems.  As one of the actors says:  "The film is really about the endurance of the human spirit . . ."  So let's toast to us! 

It was a good ensemble of actors. 

 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D

 

 

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