Film: The Way Back

A 2011 film by Peter Weir, starring Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell and Ed Harris. In 1941, seven escapees from a Soviet gulag try to make their way to freedom from Siberia to Mongolia. Along the way, they pick up an orphan runaway, but as soon as they reach Mongolia, they realize that it is Communist as well: they are not safer there than in Russia, and they have to keep going south. This involves crossing the Gobi desert, a part of China and Tibet (which were separate at that time), go through the Himalayas, to make it to safety in India.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Based on a True Story: Sort of. It's based on a memoir, though the extent of its authenticity has been questioned. note 
  • Big Brother Instinct: The younger members of the group look after Irena like she's a little sister, but it's especially noticeable with Valka — who is also the group's only criminal. They bond over the fact that they were both orphans and homeless children.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Several of them make it to India and Janusz is eventually reunited with his wife, but by the time the movie's over half the cast has died pretty horribly.
  • Cool Clear Water: They drink unpurified water from streams whenever they find them, with no ill effects. Justified, at least partially, by the fact that most of the time they’re in the wilderness and well away from human-made pollution, and because they were all used to drinking unfiltered water. Gulags weren’t famous for sanitation; the stream water was probably a lot cleaner than what they were used to.
  • Crossing the Desert: The Gobi. It doesn’t end well.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: All of them. They all wound up in a gulag, after all.
  • Determinator: Again, all of them.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Before they start to cross the Gobi, Janusz makes Irena a hat to keep the sun off her head: a circle of twigs to hold down a piece of cloth over her hair. Irena says it looks like a bird's nest, but it really resembles Christ's crown of thorns. Fitting, considering she's the group's only real innocent, and she dies.
  • Five-Man Band:
  • Great Escape: From...
  • The Gulag: Which is where the story starts out.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Played with but eventually subverted. The gang accept and come to have affection for Irena, but she definitely doesn’t get a happy ending.
  • Heroic BSOD: Smith has this after Tomasz dies.
  • Idiot Ball: Why would you send a guy with night blindness to collect firewood at dusk? No wonder Kazik freezes to death.
  • Infant Immortality: Nope. Granted, Irena is a young teenager rather than a small child, but she’s definitely the baby of the group, and she dies of dehydration in the Gobi desert.
  • Last Name Basis: Mister Smith, obviously. Some of the group with a shakier grasp of English think his first name actually is Mister.
  • The Load: Kazik.
  • Lzherusskie: And the same for Poles. "Łże-Polacy"?
  • Ms. Exposition: Irena…literally. The men won’t talk to one another about their former lives, but they will tell her, and she’s the one who fills each of them and the audience in on each character’s past. She asks why they didn’t talk to one another, and is told that in the gulag, the less said, the better.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: At one point Valka asks Janusz who they should eat first, assuming that the reason Janusz brought so many extra people was so there would be something to eat. Janusz is horrified.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: A milder case than a lot of movies set in Russia, but it’s still there.
  • Parental Substitute: Smith becomes this for Irena. She latches onto him in particular because he used to be a father, which is somewhat ironic since he initially didn’t want the group to let her stay.
  • Papa Wolf: All of them for Irena, but especially Mister Smith, whose teenage son was shot in the head before he himself was sent to the gulag.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: And how. A priest, an accountant, an actor, a criminal, a cavalry officer, a baker who aspires to be an artist, an engineer, and a young girl.
  • Redemption Quest: That is, in the character development sense of the trope. Redemption becomes a motivation for several people on the journey. Janeusz eventually reveals the reason that keeps him going is to return to Poland and forgive his wife. He knows her spirit was broken when she was tortured to make a false confession condemning him. During the journey, Mr. Smith also learns to forgive himself for his unintentional role in his son's death.
  • Scenery Porn: All over the place. Peter Weir hasn't won awards for cinematography for nothing.
  • Spoiler Opening: The opening credits say that only four men made it to India, meaning we know from the first most of the characters are going to die, or at least not make it.
  • Tattooed Crook: Valka, very heavily.
  • Thirsty Desert
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Half the movie is one long case of that, but right off there’s poor Kazik. Their first night of freedom and he gets lost looking for wood and freezes to death. The real kicker is that he saw the fire vaguely and thought he’d come close enough. He hadn’t.