The Way Back is a 2010 war drama film about a group of prisoners who escape from a Siberian Gulag camp during World War II. The film is directed by Peter Weir from a screenplay also by Weir and Keith Clarke, inspired by The Long Walk (1955), a book by S?awomir Rawicz, a Polish POW in the Soviet Gulag. It stars Jim Sturgess as Janusz, Colin Farrell as Valka, Ed Harris as Mr. Smith, and Saoirse Ronan as Irena, with Alexandru Potocean as Tomasz, Sebastian Urzendowsky as Kazik, Gustaf Skarsgård as Voss, Drago? Bucur as Zoran, and Mark Strong as Khabarov. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Makeup.
The film begins with Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish POW, being interrogated by a Soviet officer. Janusz refuses to admit his guilt. His wife, who has been tortured, is brought in to the room and forced to make a statement condemning Janusz. Janusz is sentenced to 20 years in the Gulag. At the camp in Siberia, Janusz meets Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an American Metro engineer; an actor named Khabarov (Mark Strong); Valka (Colin Farrell), a hardened Russian criminal; Tomasz, an artist and the group's cook; Kazik, a Pole who suffers from night blindness; Voss, a Latvian priest; and Zoran, a Yugoslav accountant. Khabarov confides to Janusz that he has a plan for escaping. Khabarov's proposed route is south to Mongolia, passing Lake Baikal. Smith tells Janusz that Khabarov is fantasizing about his desire to escape in order to improve his own morale, but Smith is really willing to attempt it. After being condemned to labor in the mines, Janusz decides to implement the escape plan during a severe snowstorm. Smith, Valka, Zoran, Voss, Tomasz, and Kazik escape with him. On the first night, while looking for firewood, Kazik becomes lost due to his night blindness and eventually freezes to death. He is found by the group next morning and buried; at his grave, Janusz says "A free man died here." It is not long after setting off that the group becomes hopelessly lost and bivouacs in a large cave. Janusz decides to search for the lake by himself, and after three days of trekking across the Siberian steppe, he sees the lake from the top of a cliff and returns to camp, almost dead from exhaustion. When they reach Lake Baikal they come across a Polish girl, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), who tells them she escaped from a collective farm and was originally from a village outside Warsaw where her parents were murdered by Russian soldiers. Smith realizes she is lying, since Warsaw was inside German occupation zone and Russians hadn't reached it, but he forgives Irena. She later tells the group that she came to the Soviet Union with her parents, communist idealists who were arrested as spies. Eventually the party reaches the Russian-Mongolian border but Valka decides to stay in Russia because, despite his imprisonment, he still sees Russia as his homeland, and Stalin as a hero. The group carries on but soon finds a great arch over the road with images of Joseph Stalin and a red star, implying that Mongolia is now a Communist state and they will not be safe there. Because of the situation in nearby China they decide that the closest safe place is India and so continue south, across the Gobi desert. As they cross the desert, the party becomes increasingly dehydrated, but they soon discover a well. They stock up with as much water as they can carry and continue on, but a sandstorm strikes and they lose some of the water. As they cross the desert the water runs out and the group begins to grow weak with blisters and sunstroke. Irena repeatedly collapses and eventually dies. The remaining five continue walking until Tomasz dies and Smith loses the will to live. That evening, while Zoran and Voss continue, Janusz stays behind with the apparently dying Smith. Smith tells Janusz that he cannot overcome the guilt of taking his son to Russia. Janusz explains that he is motivated by the desire to see his wife again so he can forgive her and she can thereby forgive herself, implying Smith should forgive himself too. Smith and Janusz rejoin the others and the next day they find a small stream of water to save them from dehydration. By now they are in sight of the Himalayas and whilst resting on a rock are found by a Sherpa who guides them to a nearby monastery. They regain their strength but are told by the monks that India cannot be safely reached until spring. Smith decides to continue to Lhasa where there is an American military mission that will enable him to return to the United States, telling the others they've "made it." Despite the warning of unpredictable snow making the journey difficult, Janusz insists to continue the journey. Soon, they continue over the Himalayas until they reach the Nepalese/Indian border, where they are given a warm welcome by the locals. The film ends with Janusz reminiscing about returning home to his wife. This is followed by a montage of the Communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe and its eventual overthrow. The final scene shows Janusz and his wife reunited in 1989.