Peter Weir’s The Way Back (2010)

I wasn’t aware of this movie despite the fact that Peter Weir is one of my favourite film directors. I’m glad that The War Movie Buff told me about it.

Even though I like some of Weir’s older movies and also Master & Commander a lot, I didn’t expect anything before watching The Way Back. I’m glad I didn’t, I think I would have been very disappointed if I had.  I’m afraid it is Peter Weir’s weakest film ever. The story, based on true events, had a lot of potential, the actors were mostly well-chosen, the cinematography is stunning, the score is convincing and still…. There is something missing. I couldn’t help comparing it to another POW movie, also starring Colin Farrell, namely Hart’s War. While Hart’s War focuses on how the prisoners escape from the camp, The Way Back shows their long journey from the Siberian gulag to India.

The movie starts in Poland in 1941. Janusz has been captured. His wife denounced him under torture. He is a spy and sentenced to spend the next 20 years in a Siberian gulag. He’s a strong young man, optimistic, kind and resourceful. He makes friends in the camp, some tell him that it is possible to escape. He chooses a few who will follow him, they prepare their escape and one night they do it.

It’s a small group of seven people, headed by the spirited Janusz (Jim Sturgess). An American (Ed Harris), a Russian criminal (Colin Farrell), a Polish priest and others. One dies in the early days. The hardships of their journey are unimaginable. First they walk for weeks from the camp to Lake Baikal, then to Mongolia, the Chinese wall, across Tibet and into India. They cross the mountains and deserts, almost die from cold, hunger and thirst. After a few weeks, they are followed by a young girl who finally joins them. Some make it, some don’t.

On their way, each time they cross the border of a country, they see how far Communism has advanced. Since they escaped a gulag, they have to get to a country that is free of communism. The moment they enter Mongolia and then China, they know, they have to make it to India.

I’ve seen my share of POW movies. The Way Back is one of the weakest, it’s more a survival story that is told in a boring way. The fact that Colin Farrell was in Hart’s War (which I think was a bad movie here is my review) and in this one, made matters worse. One cannot help comparing those two movies and also see parallels between the choice of Ed Harris in this one and Bruce Willis in the other.

I guess you gathered that this movie left me pretty unfazed. It’s not bad it’s just lacking something.

If you want to watch a truly good newer POW movie watch Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (here is my review). Of the older ones I like The Colditz Story best.

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Rescue Dawn (2006) or One Man´s Ordeal in a Vietcong Prison Camp

Dieter Dengler, a young American fighter pilot of German origins, is shot down over Laos, in 1965, just when the Vietnam war is about to start. Naïve and enthusiastic he doesn’t think that much harm could come his way but when he is captured by Vietcong he learns otherwise. Thanks to his astonishing resourcefulness, his unabashed optimism and his sense for camaraderie he survives the worst imaginable circumstances. He endures torture, hunger, pain and humiliations by sadistic guards, petty accusations and nagging by fellow prisoners. He carefully plans their escape and finally succeeds, only to find his ordeal is not over.

Werner Herzog is known for movies that often have lush jungle vegetation as a backdrop. No difference here. The same cinematographic language that I knew from movies like Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde and Grizzly Man that have made Herzog famous. The beauty of the forest, the plants and giant insects are captured here as well, but  then the comparison to other movies stops. Rescue Dawn was one of the most revolting films I have ever seen. Probably it is shockingly true to the events that Dieter Dengler had to endure, nevertheless I found it hard to watch. Seeing people eat handfuls of larvae and maggots was not my cup of tea. Sure it is well done and all but yuk, yuk, yuk.

Apart from being disgusted I am also awed. It´s incredible what some people can endure and how they manage to survive the worst.

Christian Bale is very good although  he acts quite badly at the beginning. Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davis are outstanding.

Required viewing for Werner Herzog fans, POW movie fans and every one like me mad enough to think they have to see every decent war movie no matter what´s at stake for the stomach nerves.