Urban Cinefile
"Once the films are finished, I never see any of them ever again . all I can see is mistakes. I can't bear to look at them."  -Bruce Beresford, Australian director
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



Drawn in by deep seated emotional pull to the story, Peter Weir returns to the screen with another story of humans under duress in The Way Back. Andrew L. Urban reports.

The desert played a cruel trick on the crew of The Way Back, Peter Weir’s latest film, about a handful of prisoners escaping from a Siberian Gulag and walking all the way to India during World War II in 1940. “We were shooting some desert scenes in Morocco, which stood in for the Gobi desert, and getting ready to shoot a sand storm,” says Weir in Sydney, talking about the arduous shoot.

“We had wind machines and crew standing by with sand and dust, when a real dust storm appeared.” As the crew began to hurriedly wrap and run, Weir yelled out “let’s shoot it, let’s shoot it…” Cinematographer Russell Boyd (on his fifth film with Weir) hurriedly made ready with his team, the crew took their positions … and the dust storm abated as quickly as it had come. “We had to revert to Plan A and make our own sand storm,” says Weir with the resigned shrug of a filmmaker who knows very well that nature can not be relied upon – especially when you’re making a film.

While Morocco stood in for the Gobi, Bulgaria was where much of the action was shot, both exteriors and interiors, including those in Siberia, where the film starts. The characters include the Polish army officer Janusz (Jum Sturgess); he is joined by the guilt-ridden American Mr Smith (Ed Harris), patriotic Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell) and four others. On the way, they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan) a lone Polish girl hoping to join them. Short of food and water, they walk all the way to Mongolia but discover they need to go even further to reach safety: India, almost 6,500 kms from the Gulag where they started.

"exploring human nature under extreme duress"

The Way Back is Weir’s first film since his 2003 Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, and as in that film, Weir is exploring human nature under extreme duress. The film was sparked by the Slavomir Rawicz novel, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, which purports to be a true story of the author’s own Siberian escape and trek. Although it turned out that it was not really his own story, Weir’s research – including dozens of interviews with Polish survivors of the Gulags – revealed that such an escape did take place and perhaps more than one.

An officer in the Polish cavalry fighting the Nazis, Janusz is one of thousands of Polish solders imprisoned when the Soviet Red Army advanced into Poland from the east.

Arrested as a spy for having come into contact with Germans, and for speaking English, Janusz is tortured, sentenced, and force-marched to Siberia. A signed statement from his wife, also extracted under torture, seals his fate.

“Everyone in the group has his own reasons for wanting to escape, and my character’s arrival sort of puts the final piece of the puzzle in place,” says Jim Sturgess. “Janusz is well educated but he’s also a woodsman who knows how to find his way through the forest. He believes escape is possible, and is absolutely determined to do so because he wants to get home to forgive his wife of the horrendous guilt he knows she’s suffering. He must get free to free her.”

"an emotional level"

It’s been a long time between films for Weir. “I don’t really know why this story drew me in,” he says. “It’s on an emotional level, something deep … it’s definitely not on an intellectual level.” The story has been welcomed by the Polish community, many of whose sons were sent to the Gulags and who feel this story has never really seen the light of day. Weir presented the film at a special preview at the Cremorne Orpheum in Sydney (Feb. 17) which was also attended by the Polish ambassador, and a handful of Gulag survivors, who expressed their thanks to the filmmaker for telling the story.

The cast went through survival training and dialogue coaching; everything was carefully planned. Except for one scene, which was an impromptu and unscripted back story rehearsal for lead actor Jim Sturgess. “I suggested we set up a scene just to help set up his character,” recalls Weir. “Jim, playing Janusz, is under interrogation for spying but he won’t sign the confession. His wife is brought in and she implicates him … for reasons we can guess at. I asked my assistant Sally Edwards to stand in as his wife. We shot it and it was so good I decided to keep it. I knew I could use it somewhere.” That scene, complete with Sally, opens the film.

(First published [edited version] in the Sun Herald.)

Published February 24, 2011

Email this article

Peter Weir


© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020