"The Way Back" (Newmarket), is an inspirational story with a nagging caveat—its stunning portrayal of a 4,000-mile trek from Siberia to India by escaped political prisoners may not be quite the truth.
The film, directed by Peter Weir, who co-wrote the script with Keith R. Clarke, is nonetheless superbly made, and with skilled actors displaying deeply felt emotions along with striking courage, many will find it a refreshing break from Hollywood's special-effects overload and increasingly vulgar story lines.
At 133 minutes, others may find it an overlong saga about a hike through rugged scenery without the essential plot tension of a pursuit.
Back to that accuracy issue: "The Long Walk"—the 1956 book on which Weir and Clarke's script is based—was ghostwritten by a British journalist for Slavomir Rawicz, a former Polish cavalry officer. Its tale of Rawicz's heroic 1940 escape from a gulag in the Soviet Union, through snowstorms, across the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas to political asylum on the Indian subcontinent made it a sensation during the height of the Cold War.
The details of the narrative have not held up to fact-checking, however, and there is some evidence—as reported by the BBC—that elements of others' escapes may have been woven into a single story, and that Rawicz himself may never, in fact, have fled.
All the same, this is a compelling drama. Its uplifting message about the need for extraordinary solidarity and Christian compassion in the face of every horror man and the wilderness can impose shows the power of a well-crafted epic.
Jim Sturgess leads the group as Janusz, a Polish prisoner jailed as a foreign spy. Others in the group include Ed Harris as an American known only as Mr. Smith, Colin Farrell as Valka, a Russian gangster, and Saiorse Ronan as Irena, a Soviet orphan.
Some of the escapees fall apart physically as they battle blizzards, heat, hallucinations from hunger, packs of wolves and their own turbulent feelings. The fact that their story may fall short of documentary truth doesn't make it any less gripping, while the positive underlying values probably make it acceptable for older teens.
The film contains fleeting rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Kurt Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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