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Film / The Way Back

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A 2011 film by Peter Weir, starring Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan.

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.

Not to be confused with 2020's The Way Back.


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. Voss bonds with her quite a bit as well. He's the one who goes back for her, he makes her a hat to protect her from the sun, and he's the one who carries her when her feet hurt too much to walk.
  • 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.
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  • 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 for most of them.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: All of them. They all wound up in a gulag, after all. What's extra heartbreaking is that only two of them are actual criminals — and one of those criminals killed someone in the heat of the moment (out of grief).
  • Death of a Child: 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.
  • Determinator: All of them, but especially Janusz, whose motivation is to find his wife and forgive her for the torture-induced "confession" that got him sent to the gulag in the first place.
  • 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.
  • Fight to Survive: A long, desperate struggle to walk halfway across Asia on foot.
  • Great Escape: The opening of the film involves the protagonists planning (and executing) an escape from the gulag.
  • The Gulag: Where the story starts out. All but two of the characters had committed no actual crime.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Played with, but eventually subverted. The gang accept and come to have affection for Irena, but she dies in the desert.
  • 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.
  • Language Barrier: To an extent. Because the characters come from all over the USSR (and one from America), English is the only language they have in common, but each person speaks it with a varying level of fluency. Valka struggles heavily, while Voss and Irena, having had a proper education, are fairly fluent. English is Mister's native language, and given that he moved to Russia he presumably speaks Russian as well.
  • Last-Name Basis: Mister Smith. Some of the group with a shakier grasp of English think his first name actually is Mister.
  • Liar Revealed: Several of the characters, but Irena is the most obvious: Mister realizes the story she told can't be true, because the area she said she lived in was occupied by Russia in World War II, rather than Germany. Valka asks why she lied when her real history is awful enough (her Polish parents went to Moscow to work for the Communist Party, only to be executed for no reason and leave her and her brother orphans to be sent to a collective farm), and she says she thought an even sadder story would keep them from leaving her behind.Voss also eventually reveals that he was in the gulag not for being a priest, but for killing a young soldier who had defaced his church. It wasn't premeditated, but it was still murder.
  • The Load: Kazik. His night blindness (caused by a vitamin deficiency, and not uncommon in gulags) meant he was something of a liability. Sadly, it gets him killed on their first night of freedom.
  • 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 that 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. Colin Farrel and Saoirse Ronan have it the worst in places, but all of them slip sooner or later. (Ed Harris got to keep his natural American accent, since his character was from America.)
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Mister is especially bitter because before he himself was even sent to the gulag, his seventeen-year-old son was shot (and it's implied by Irena that it was done in front of him.)
  • Parental Substitute: Smith becomes a father figure 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.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: 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.
  • Run for the Border: Several escapees from The Gulag flee, hoping to escape from Russia and seek refuge in Mongolia. When they finally reach the border, they discover that Mongolia and Russia are now allies. Since the country on the other side of Mongolia also has communist ties, they are forced to cross ''three' borders before the survivors of the group are safe.
  • Scenery Porn: All over the place, especially as the film was largely shot on-location. Another excellent work by Peter Weir's frequent collaborator, award-winning cinematographer, Russell Boyd.
  • Shown Their Work: The tattoos Valka has were adopted by many criminals who hoped to avoid being shot, as it was illegal to deface an image of Stalin. Of course that didn't stop people from shooting them in the head.
  • Spoiler Opening: The opening credits say that only three 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. Slightly subverted in that Smith and Valka survive, but leave the group before they reach their objective—Valka decides he can't leave Russia and figures even if he's caught again, he probably would be sent to a different gulag (his concern being getting away from the gangsters to whom he owes money in the gulag they escaped from) and Smith thinks he can get to a US army mission in China from Lhasa
  • Tattooed Crook: Valka, very heavily. Historically accurate, too, as Russian prison tattoos have long and very specific meanings.
  • Thirsty Desert: Very thirsty. They have no water bottles or canteens; they're reduced to carrying what small, open pots they could find, which leads to evaporation and other problems. At one point, they do find a well, but the Gobi has very few natural water sources.
  • 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.