In the movie 127 Hours, James Franco plays Aron Ralston, a young Colorado man who freed himself from entrapment in a Utah canyon by cutting off his right arm. In director Danny Boyle’s gripping story of survival, Ralston is outfitted with a variety of equipment: a battery powered light, a video camera and a knife, among other hiking and rock climbing paraphernalia.
It in no way diminishes Ralston’s story – or Boyle’s achievement -- to note that the movie The Way Back tells the story of a survival journey that was unaided by any technology other than a knife. I’m being a little unfair because The Way Back takes place well before a lot of the high-tech gadgetry available to Ralston even existed. But that may be why The Way Back succeeds in showing us – in forcefully primal ways – what it’s like to grapple with the merciless brutalities of nature.
Based on a true story, The Way Back focuses the incredible tale of a group of men who in 1940 hiked 4,000 miles to escape a Siberian gulag. Consider that number for a second: 4,000 miles, a distance I’d view as an ordeal in an airplane, never mind on foot. The men traversed all kinds of forbidding landscapes in their quest for freedom, and director Peter Weir’s movie works as an amazing testament to their desire to survive and be free.
Not all of those who escaped the gulag made it to safety. Ultimately, three of the men crossed the Himalayas into India while another – an American – headed for Lhasa in Tibet in order to find his way back to the U.S.
The story begins when Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is sentenced to 20 years in a Siberia prison camp for being a spy. The Soviets tortured Janusz’s wife in a successful attempt to force her to betray her innocent husband. Once in the prison camp, Janusz quickly realizes that there are at least two dangers: The guards and the vicious criminal prisoners, those who’ve been sent to the gulag for theft and murder as opposed to supposed political activity.
The escape elements of the story couldn’t be simpler. After making sure that we understand the grim horrors of the gulag – freezing temperatures, inhuman work details and scarce food – Weir stages the escape that sets up the rest of the movie. Joining Janusz and cohorts in his trans-continental trek are an American – known only as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and a Volka (Colin Farrell) -- a Russian criminal whose torso sports more tattoos than the average American athlete.
Weir probably doesn’t do enough to individualize the characters, but he certainly knows how to make their physical torments seem real. A gaunt looking Harris, for one, looks as if he’d spent years fighting a losing battle with the elements.
With an able assist from cinematographer Russell Boyd, Weir paces his traveler/heroes in some of the most arresting landscapes ever filmed. You feel overwhelmed by the terrain, some of it photographed in long shots that emphasize the isolation of the men, as well as their vulnerability.
About half way through, the travelers are joined by a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) who’s also on the run. At first Mr. Smith, the most emotionally guarded of the men, refuses to take her along, but even he eventually develops respect for a girl of undeniable spirit and physical courage.
The cast handles the variety of accents well, and The Way Back becomes a visually impressive journal of a trip that only the heartiest of souls possibly could have survived. The movie’s ending doesn’t reach the emotional heights for which Weir may have been aiming, but this story of survival makes for a stark reminder of what it’s like to have to claw one’s way toward the next day, maybe even toward the next step.