CINEMA: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
Stalin's forgotten victims remembered: Peter Weir's The Way Back (rated M)
, April 2, 2011
One night back in the early seventies, when on duty as a medic while doing National Service, I was looking for something to read.
In that cross between a regimental aid post and a military hospital, no-one ever read anything except motor catalogues or trashy magazines; but I discovered an obscure library shelf for patients, which contained a gem of a book called The Long Walk.
Written by a Polish soldier, it was an engrossing account of a journey undertaken during the years 1941-42 by a group of seven prisoners of Stalin’s forced labour camps, who managed to escape and trek south via Siberia, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas, to freedom in India.
Four of them died along the way.
Like many others, I was disappointed to learn that, according to a 2005 BBC investigation, the story is not true, but Australian director Peter Weir decided to tell it anyway in his latest film, The Way Back.
The result is a curate’s egg of a film — good in parts.
Our culture is swamped with material — books, articles, films, documentaries — about the Nazi regime in general, and its death camps in particular.
This is not a bad thing, but unfortunately it is not matched by a parallel reminder of the atrocities perpetrated by Nazism’s equally repulsive twin, communism.
There are two reasons for this.
The first is that drab old communism is not as sexy as Nazism, with its smart uniforms, and ambience of totally abandoned but campy evil.
The other, and more important, factor is that overt anti-communism is regarded as desperately unfashionable by the Western intelligentsia in academia, the media, the arts and show business.
It is therefore a cause for rejoicing when any film, no matter how mediocre, redresses the balance by enlightening the general public’s ignorance of Soviet history — or correcting its misconceptions based on the misrepresentations in other films such as Doctor Zhivago!
Although the route taken by the escapees is magnificently photographed against a variety of natural backdrops, and despite the hazards and privations faced by the group — which include hunger and thirst, heat and cold, mosquitoes and wolves, sickness and exhaustion — the result is rather tedious.
Not only are we not drawn into any emotional involvement with the characters, but there is the perennial problem of healthy actors trying to portray starving prisoners.
Despite their faces being coated with real dirt, and fake wounds, scabs and scars, their cheeks are not gaunt and hollow, and their eyes not big and sunken.
The opening sequences of the film, however, include a number of important truths.
These include the paranoid Stalinist system of arbitrary arrests; the use of forced and false incrimination of victims’ family members; the wholesale imprisonment of idealistic Western communists who went to live in the USSR; and the decades-long sentences to forced labour camps (the Gulag).
The last of these often constituted virtual death sentences, because of the camps’ harsh living conditions and dangerous working environment. There were no OHS inspectors in the mines and forests of Siberia.
Political prisoners were also terrorised by the camps’ ordinary criminals, some of whom, as the film shows, actually revered Stalin.
Weir’s story is book-ended, and also given narrative continuity, by the theme of Polish history.
The central character, a soldier captured by the Soviets after the USSR’s 1939 invasion of eastern Poland, is shown at the beginning of the film being betrayed by his wife, who has been tortured by the NKVD.
Through all his adventures he dreams of returning to offer her forgiveness, knowing that she will not be able to forgive herself.
Their reunion takes place decades later, following a rapid montage of Polish history which covers the main events of that country’s Nazi and communist occupations in the half-century 1939-89.
This is a good film, but if its three predominant elements — Stalinism, landscape and personal tragedy — had been better integrated, it could have been a great one.
Bill James is a Melbourne writer.