All Commentary
Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Escaping Totalitarianism Is a Lot of Work

If you want to know how it felt to be European or Asian in the 20th century, here you have it. There were few places to run.

Do you like dramatic period pieces? Preferably dealing with geopolitics and the rise of totalitarianism in the early 20th century? With great scenery and swelling film scores?

Well, then. We should be friends. And you should watch The Way Back on your next movie night.

I just finished this 2010 movie dramatizing the story of Polish prisoner of war Slawomir Rawisz, who in 1941 escaped from a Soviet gulag in Siberia to walk to freedom.

That’s right – it’s based on a supposedly true(ish) story (I really hope it is) detailed in Rawisz’s book The Long Walk.

**Spoilers follow.**

The Long Walk to Freedom

This movie is the perfect mix of hope and despair – something hard to pull off in a story and setting like this. Our soon-to-be-escapees find themselves in a gulag in the world’s most unforgiving environment shortly after the Soviets and the Nazis divided up Poland in 1939.

When they escape, they find that they have few places to which they can run. The world is now at war. Mongolia is run by communists. The Nazis have all of Europe. The Japanese and Chinese are now duking it out in the East (and, shortly after, the Communists will take over there). And to top it all off, our hero Rawisz certainly won’t be able to return to Poland – which wasn’t free from Communist rule until the early 90s.

If you want to know how it felt to be European or Asian in the 20th century, here you have it. There were few places to run.If you want to know how it felt to be European or Asian in the 20th century, there you have it. There are few places to run from totalitarianism in a world like that.

What inspires people to try escaping anyway? That’s a big theme which The Way Back aims to address. I think it does a solid job.

The story is great. With all of the war movies made about this time period, individuals tend to get buried under the movements of troops and nations. This movie squarely deals with each individual escapee’s reasons for living. They’re not political. They’re things like art and cooking and preaching and love. They make people cross through, almost die in, and definitely die in deserts and forests and rivers and mountains and tundras and steppes.

The story gets help from solid performances, memorably from Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan. Harris plays a dour old American engineer (Harris is great at dour and old roles) caught up in Stalinist repressions. He does a great job of bringing a mystery and authority to the role that makes his character stand out even more than the main character, Rawisz.

Ronan’s character is the sole female escapee, a shy but determined young Polish girl who joins the men on their walk south. She plays the role of a sort of muse in the plot, and it’s through her that we learn the individual stories of each escapee – the priest whose church was looted by communists, the soldier whose wife betrayed him, the man whose 17-year old son was shot by the Russian regime.

Overall, if you want a period/historical drama, The Way Back is a good choice. It opens your imagination to the crisis of totalitarianism and its human impact. There are some great wilderness survival scenes, amazing vistas, and genuinely tragic moments. While it’s certainly not the best movie I’ve seen in this genre, it does its job – which is more than I can say for most. Definitely keep this one on your list.

Watch the trailer and see if it’s up your alley. Movies like these need audiences with imagination and awareness.

Reprinted from the author’s website.

  • James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, intellectual explorer, and perpetual apprentice. He is an alumnus of Praxis and a FEE Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow. He writes regularly at