Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Peter Weir and Keith Clarke
Cinematographer: Russell Boyd
by Jon Cvack
Continued Part 1...
The men wander through the desert, each reaching a point like Irena, and only with the power of each other are they able to keep on going. In a brilliant sequence, Mr. Smith believes he sees an oasis ahead. Weir shoots it in such a nebulous way that we too don’t know what the answer is. I veered toward agreeing with Wieszcik who refused to believe it, and my stomach nearly dropped when I realized I would have been wrong and likely killed everyone. The men drink the dirty water in a way that washes over you. The cold splash is both a break from the heated photography, and in knowing they cannot stay. The scene peaks when the men discuss whether to remain, knowing that they could easily wander to their deaths, or keep moving forward, knowing that without food, remaining would only prolong their death. Eventually they fill everything they can with water, down to the smallest cup, filled to the brim, which they try to balance on the walk out. After days, they’re no closer to the desert’s end, having depleted their ample supplies.
The men all warned upon her initial approach that she would only slow them down. While tragic in that their admonitions were correct, all of the men feel a deep attachment to the woman, whose hunger for freedom was no different than their own. When Irena finally falls, I was left with a strange hope that she would return in the end, knowing that this would have been impossible. It was heartbreaking knowing she couldn’t go any further, with a look so haunting it stayed with me long after. Weir’s decision to avoid casting a larger star in this role, or beautiful performer allowed us to place any of our close friends upon the character. She wasn’t made up, dressed in rags that hugged her just right, as you could see other filmmakers exploiting. Her face said it all - dry, hopeless, and broken, terrified in wondering how much further it would have been, knowing that she couldn’t make it another step.
Tomasz later follows and Mr. Smith reaches the very breaking point. After all we experienced, when he requests that they leave him, the scene is particularly effective because we expect them to do exactly that. Mr. Smith was the one that warned most about Irena, and combined with the guilt he now feels, we can only agree with the choice. Instead, Wieszcik takes a knee and provides the few words he can think of to get Mr. Smith to go just a bit further.
Miraculously, on the precipice of death, they’re saved by Tibetan Months, which seems almost uninspired to even say, as though written as a generic Hollywood Ending. They each devise their plan for getting home, with Mr. Smith working with one of the Monks to make the dangerous journey return to US forces. The other three decide to journey through the Himalayas in order to reach India. In what I can’t even comprehend, Wieszczyk would end up wandering around the world until 1989.
The story goes far beyond survival, as it feels near apocalyptic at points, where we witness a world that once was, and that not all that long ago. When they arrived at the Archway into Mongolia, as the camera reveals Stalin and Peljidiin Genden (or at least I believe it was Gender), it seemed as though a fairy tale.
I recently went to a Polish restaurant near my apartment, which was formerly called Warsawja, and has now changed their name to Solidarity, with Soviet-inspired white and red colors, and now a secret back room, with hammers and sickle memorabilia hanging all over the walls. I once read the book “Gulag” by Anne Applebaum, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is one of the leading volumes on the subject. It mentioned how, upon the Soviety Union’s collapse, young college students were buying authentic hammer and sickle buttons at flea markets and wearing them on their shirts. The Soviet Union killed millons - a million the Gulag, another million during the Reign of Terror, and the five million during the famine and the largest human catastrophe during the era. With historians still debating, let’s just say that Stalin killed as many innocent people as Hitler (see this NY Books article). So imagine if people wore Swastika buttons they found at flea markets? The idea that a restaurant is putting symbols of comparable destruction just goes to show how easily history most despicable tragedies are forgotten and shaped. Applebaum blamed liberals for downplaying the tragedy, as communists were more sympathetic to the left. I would like to hear another historian's perspective on that, but it’s an interesting idea (and no this doesn’t mean I equate liberals with totalitarian communist superpowers).
The Way Back shows what the world was once like and portrays the conditions in ways that few other movies have. There are many films that explore the holocaust - and rightfully so. But similar to Native Americans, those who suffered under the Soviet regime get far too few stories told about them. What I find fascinating about history is the idea that people want to think we’re at some culmination, as though all past moments led to present times, mistaken for the best the way things could be. But history will continue, there will be other tragedies, there will be bad people who rise up with terrible intentions, and the consequences could - and will - be far more severe.
BELOW: Always a sign of a good movie when against all logic (only an hour had passed), you hope that they've finally reached safety
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