As Soviet prisoners line up for a few spoonfuls of gruel, a piece of bread falls to the ground and a tattered prisoner snatches at it. Another prisoner, who goes only by the alias Mister Smith, crushes the man's hand with his heel and retrieves the bread. "Kindness," he scoffs. "That can kill you here."
But when Smith and his fellow prisoners escape the gulag and travel 4,000 miles of wasteland in search of freedom, it is kindness that enables the escapees to hold on. The Way Back is based on The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish soldier who claimed that he and his companions escaped from a Soviet gulag and traveled thousands of miles to freedom in India. In 2006, BBC unearthed documents that cast doubt on Rawicz's claims. The story is still compelling, although The Way Back falters at times in breaking the bleak monotony of a 4,000-mile journey.
Political prisoner Janusz (Jim Sturgess) leads the group of prisoners and is the warm and hopeful counterpoint to Mister Smith (Ed Harris), as Smith indicates when he tells Janusz he believes Janusz will carry him when he gives out. "You have a weakness that could be useful to me," Smith says, "kindness."
Director Peter Weir makes the viewer feel the hostility of the prisoners' surroundings with sweeping shots of the ice-laden pines, broiling desert and belching hell of the gulag mine. But the film's pace drags as the characters freeze, bleed, and blister in a dreary and unpunctuated trek. Harris gives a layered performance as a man hardened not just by life's cruelty but by choices he can't forgive himself for making. Sturgess is believable as the only leader whose hope can hold them together.
"We've all done terrible things to survive," Smith tells the girl Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who joins them, but in this case the fight for survival humanizes the characters instead of destroying their humanity. They can only save themselves by sacrificing to save each other.