Monday 10 January 2011

Odyssey


The Way Back is based on a true story, or creative fiction, or a pack of lies, depending on your point of view. Directed by Peter Weir, the movie tells of the escape in 1940 by a disparate group of prisoners from a Soviet labour camp somewhere to the north of Lake Baikal, recording their subsequent trek through the frozen wastes of Siberia, across the parched Gobi Desert, on to Tibet – China seems to be almost completely missed apart from the brief passage of the Great Wall – through the Himalayas – just as mysteriously incidental – and on to India and freedom.

It’s an impressive movie on a visual level, beautifully shot. It’s far less impressive on a human level, with almost no psychological depth or insight. Most of the characters failed to engage me, apart from Ed Harris as the enigmatic Mister Smith, an American engineer caught up in a Stalinist nightmare, and Colin Farrell, the tough, murderous Valka, a Russian zec or criminal inmate who escapes with the ‘politicos’ because his indebtedness to some of his fellow gangsters puts him in danger of his own life. Jim Sturgess as Janusz, a Polish officer and the leader of the group, sent to the gulag as a spy on the forced evidence of his wife, was far too tepid and unbelievable for my taste. The rest of the group left virtually no impression at all.

I should also mention Saoirse Ronan playing Irena, a Polish escapee from a collective farm, who meets up with the group in the neighbourhood of Lake Baikal, the female interest, added, I suppose, to get the guys to come out a little more about themselves and their individual destinies.

I think I’m beginning to sound a tad too negative. This is a good film, one I enjoyed, one that works as a personal and political odyssey, away from communism and towards freedom, in a literal and metaphorical sense. The early scenes in the gulag are good, showing the sheer horror of these places; the horror of logging in arctic conditions on an inadequate diet and the even greater horror of the mines. Life is not cheap here: it has no value at all. In one review I read the author said of Mister Smith – he never gives his first name- that he did not know why he was in prison. That’s just the thing about the gulag system under Stalin: many of the inmates had no idea why they were there either.

The journey itself is compellingly dramatic, though it requires a major leap of imagination to believe that anyone could survive a trek across a four thousand mile wilderness with almost no food apart from occasional game, fish and other scraps picked up along the way. The only natural survivor in the group is the knife-wielding Valka, responsible for the most effective foraging and ruthless enough to contemplate the possibility of cannibalism. But he, paradoxically the only one of the group who actually believes in the lying nonsense of communism – he has Lenin and Stalin tattooed on his chest rather than his arse, as another of the group suggests – refuses to leave Russia.

Yes, the journey is compelling, though it has a tendency to drop into too many triumph-over-adversity clichés. Besides it’s long, too long, as is the movie, almost becoming trudgingly tiresome. In the end even Weir seems exhausted, taking us in a rush through the wintery Himalayas, potentially the most gruelling part of all, down into happy Indian valleys.

The final reception by the tea-pickers is one of only three encounters with human groups in the whole trip. There are the monks of Tibet and before that some mounted Mongolian herdsmen. Then, just before entering the Gobi, the group, with Mister Smith as their spokesman, pass themselves off as American Buddhist pilgrims on their way to Lhasa. American pilgrims in 1940 in the middle of communist-occupied Mongolia on their way south to a Buddhist Mecca, that doesn’t test disbelief, it murders it!

The movie finishes on a rather obvious note, newsreel footage, shown under a pair of trudging feet, just in case anyone missed the message about the other journey, that of history. The footage shows the rise and fall of communism in Soviet-occupied Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, until the whole corrupt and corrupting edifice collapsed in the late 1980s. Janusz, now in old age, is finally reunited with his wife, forced to betray him all those years before, a moment of pure sentimentality!

Overall nature is the real star of The Way Back, set against an unconvincing script and shallow characterisation. Still, it has an old-fashioned epic feel that has almost completely vanished from contemporary cinema, obsessed, as it mostly is, with rom coms, claustrophobic realism, instant thrills and shallow special effects. It’s a worthwhile, worthy, perhaps, piece of cinema, a generally good movie. With a little more imagination on the part of the script writers, a little more discipline on the part of the director, it might even have been a great one.

62 comments:

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  5. And I'm a proud supporter of the Third Reich.

    Adam, I value your comments but I've told you before that I do not like propaganda. I won't publish any more USSR exhortations. Your question is for you to answer.

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  10. Adam, the forms of hyperbolic and histrionic language you use are alien to me. I do not hold any regime ‘dear to my heart’. I have, rather, tried to be objective about the practical politics of particular governments at particular stages in the history of the country in question. Here I can think of the example of Franco, whose victory in the Civil War almost certainly prevented a German invasion of Spain in 1940, which would have had disastrous consequences for the British war effort. Long live the USSR – a dead regime, incidentally- is not a political judgement- it’s an exhortation.

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  14. Have you read the book, Ana?

    As for journey movies - try Season of the Witch. I did. I'll be glad to discuss it with you . . .

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  15. Adam, you are at perfect liberty to advance arguments in favour of the USSR, serious points that I will treat seriously. You are not at liberty to add silly slogans. I thought that point was clear from previous discussions.

    A weakened Spain dominated by the communists would have been a perfect target for the Germans, anxious to lay hands on Gibraltar. It would have been an outlet for the Wehrmacht, especially after the frustration of the Battle of Britain. As it was the General Staff, on a directive from Hitler, began planning an invasion on Spain, Operation Felix, even with Franco in control, aiming at the British base.

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  16. The synopsis you give of this film makes it clear that it is based on a book I read more than 30 years ago. I can't remember the title, but all the characters are there. Irena wasn't added for "female interest"; she was in the book [died crossing the Gobi].

    The book was promoted as a true story, but there were two things that pointed to its being fiction: nobody goes through this degree of shared hardship without revealing their name; and the survivors claim to have seen a yeti en passant the Himalaya.

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  19. Calvin, no, I have not. Did you enjoy Season of the Witch? The subject intrigues me but the reviews I have read have been damning. I will go, though, if you think it worthwhile.

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  21. Adam, thanks for the link.

    The West provided the Soviets with huge amounts of war material, unacknowledged after victory, which made a major contribution to the victory of the Red Army in the East. The suggestion that the effort of Britain, America and the other Western Allies in the war against Germany had little value is utterly wrong. There is also the war against the Japanese, to which the Soviets came at the very last minute.

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  23. Dennis, hi and a Happy New Year! I enjoyed looking at your blog, only a glance so far, but I will start to read seriously.

    Yes, this is the book, and the girl does die in the Gobi, as does the artist, whose name escapes me. A yeti! :-))

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  26. As for WW2 ,enough said, the wrong side won. Yes, escape from Russia at all cost. While you were on holiday there was a political assasination in America in Tucson Arizona. A federal judge and five bystanders were killed and a congress woman was shot through the head but is still alive and others were wounded. This was done by a deranged young libral person.

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  27. Season of the Witch is a shallow piece of fluff with a simplistic storyline. The production values and locations make it pleasant to look at, and it has some amiable characters played by good actors who don't get the chance to really earn their fees. The script might well have been more interesting but it feels like it was drastically shortened and simplified. It could have been quite entertaining, but the end result was disappointing, although you can enjoy endless happy hours with your chums discussing the many different ways the movie could easily have been improved.

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  28. Ana, Dennis, the book is The Long Walk, attributed to Sławomir Rawicz, but actually written in collaboration with a ghost - Ronald Downing. Here is the Wiki link:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sławomir_Rawicz

    The mystery only makes it more interesting, I think.

    Have you read The Rose of Tibet, by Lionel Davidson? Another intriguing tale . . .

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  32. I did not know about this movie, I like the acting of Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan in past movies, the trailer looks interesting, I will remember this movie to see it later, thank you for you article. All the best for you in 2011. A hug. Mario.

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  33. The Soviet Union was truly the Evil Empire. Thank God for its passing.

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  34. Adam, forgive me, but I think you might be missing the essential point. You are absolutely right to point out the vital contribution that the Russians made to the defeat of Germany, something that is not always fully recognised here. But you went that one step further. You said that the only reason that ‘we’ won the war was thanks to ‘Joseph Stalin’s Red Army.’ As an aside I could point out that the Russians almost lost the war because of Stalin’s mishandling of that same Red Army in the early months, but let that pass.

    It does indeed take fortitude to face an enemy in battle, but fortitude without the gun is nothing. Thousands of Allied seamen - my own great uncle included - risked their lives in Arctic convoys to bring the same guns to the Russians, only to have their contributed belittled in official documents and post-war histories, as if they counted for nothing, as if the deaths of so many counted for nothing. It’s conceivable that the Soviets might have lost the war without this heavy aid in essential materials, guns, artillery, tanks and planes. More spitfires and hurricanes flew in Russia than the Battle of Britain.

    Yes, I’m also speaking about the European theatre, where it took incredible fortitude for Allied airmen to fly night after night over the skies of Germany, suffering a rate of attrition greater than any of the Soviet land battles. Even before the landings in Italy and France powerful German armies, including the seventh and the fifteenth, were pinned down in the West by the mere threat of the coming invasion, reserves that would have made a vital contribution to the war in the East if they could have been moved freely. But if you want to talk down the contribution of Britain and America to the eventual outcome then you are at liberty to do so, not a subject that I would have thought that could be comfortably raised in the British Legion!

    As for the thank you letter, thanks but no thanks. :-)

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  36. I made the point about socialism – really just a tease – because of your Labour Party blog, in which you identify yourself with so many left-wing shibboleths about welfarism and the state, as well as people like that awful old dinosaur Tony Benn. I can’t argue with a position that says liberalism is barbarism because it makes no sense at all. My plaque would say Here lived Ana the Imp.

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  38. Anthony, yes I've read about that awful business. I see it's being used by the left to beat the right when it was so obviously just the work of a lunatic.

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  42. Calvin, thank you for both pieces of information. I'm going to see The King's Speech at the end of the week but I will give The Season of the Witch a go also, if only to hear those immortal words "We are going to need more holy water." :-)

    No, I have not read that book. I will at some point, though I've designated this year as my Trollope period. I've just started the Palliser novels, one underway, another - hefty - five to follow. And then there is the Barchester Chronicles after that!

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  44. Anna, coincidentally, am presently watching a BBC adaptation of the Barchester Chronicles. Excellently done.

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  45. Adam, again I have no wish to get bogged down in semantics but it all hinges on your contention that the Soviets ‘won’ the war. They did not, certainly not in isolation. I am not ‘proud’ of the aid we gave the Soviets; my personal feelings here are irrelevant – it’s merely a fact of history. So far as I am concerned socialism has nothing to offer. This country has been invariably left worse off after a period of Labour government. Our economy was brought close to destruction by that mad socialist Gordon Brown, the Rasputin of Labour.

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  46. Np, oh, it's being serialised on the Beeb? I didn't know. Could you please give me the details?

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  49. Ana-the adaptation was made in the early 80s. It's available on DVD.

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  50. Adam - without Stalin's pact with Hitler, there might have been no war. Their mutual rape of Poland and Hitler's freedom to concentrate on invading the Low Countries, Denmark, France, and Norway without worrying about defending the Eastern Front was what ensured Hitler's early successes. Had Hitler not been insane - reneging on the von Ribbentrop pact in his desire to seize the Black Sea oil fields - he might well have defeated Britain, too, before America entered the conflict. Had Stalin not been insane, he would have recognized far sooner he had made a pact with another devil, and have been prepared to defend the USSR, instead of losing millions of lives in the Nazi's initial assaults. Stalin butchered his own people ruthlessly through direct murder, neglect, and utter incompetence - only interested in preserving his own worthless hide. I despise him, his party, and everything they wrought. But I have immense sympathy for the Russian and Slav peoples he tortured and enslaved for so many years.

    Having read your rantings here for a few months now, I have to say you are very ill-informed about some aspects of history and politics. To improve your understanding start with "Death by Government" by R. J. Rummel. It will help you gain a more realistic perspective.

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  53. @Adam: Insults? I'm unaware of any directed at you or the Polish people.

    It's a matter of history that the Russian communists invaded Poland at the same time as the Nazis and carried out mass murders and deportations of Poles to the Gulags. Are you suggesting this was done without Stalin's knowledge and direction? After the Nazis were defeated, Stalin installed puppet regimes throughout eastern europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea and the Adriatic. He very nearly succeeded in enslaving Greece. Are you suggesting the Iron Curtain was a fiction?

    I'm content to ignore your description of me as a 'jungle book liberal' whatever that means.

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  55. Stalin sacrificed nothing. He made sure someone else paid the butcher bill. He was personally responsible for ordering the deaths of millions of his own people. He is one of the most murderous thugs of all time.

    As for Cold War 'hysteria' I'd like to know what you think you are talking about. I'm old enough to remember the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolt, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring and its vicious aftermath. I remember the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I recall the Cuban Revolution and the Bay of Pigs. I saw first hand the impact of Red influence in the destruction of British Industry. I was born during the Korean War, and came of age during the Vietnam War. I saw Soviet-backed terrorists destroy freedom throughout Africa as decolonization replaced tranquil, productive societies with bloody mayhem and primitive tribal conflict.

    I could go on, with a detailed list of bloodshed inspired and carried out by Marxist revolutionaries in almost every country in the world. There was no "hysteria." It was a vast and bloody undeclared war throughout the world.

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  58. The Soviet Union is soooooooo over.

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  59. Calvin, look out for a coming article on the Third World War. :-)

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