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Aug 23, 2011

Peter Weir's The Way Back (2010) and some lessons in freedom

I just watched The Way Back (2010), a war drama directed by Peter Weir who is very well known for his great movies like Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) all of which are among my favorites. Although The Way Back (2010) pales in comparison to Weir's previous movies, the subject matter of the movie and visually spellbinding cinematography makes it a good movie. However, while watching this epic story of survival ,solidarity and indomitable human will about a group of prisoners who escaped from Soviet Gulags (labor camps) in Siberia to India seeking freedom walking more than 4000 miles , I was more engrossed in the lessons on freedom it delivered than its cinematic elements and its cinematic value.

The story follows Janusz, a Pole condemned by accusations secured by torturing his wife by Soviet officials and sent to a labor camp in Siberia. The labor camp is a melting pot of criminals and dissidents of Stalin and Soviet communism from all over Russia and its occupied territories like Poland, Hungary, Estonia. Even a cynical American named Mr. Smith is in th camp as a prisoner. Janusz with Mr. Smith forms a plan for escape. the duo is later joined by a Russian thug, a comic accountant, a pastry chef who draws, a priest, and a Pole with night blindness making the group seven membered.

The group escapes under the cover of a snowstorm but their escape is just the beginning. The group faces freezing nights in wilderness, deadly starvation due to lack of food and water, storm of mosquitoes, an endless and hostile desert, a desert storm and the Himalayas before finally reaching India and achieving freedom. Not all survive the journey but those who do, walk more than 4000 miles.

Some lessons I drew from the movie are as follows:

  • Liberty is in fact something that makes all the difference in the world.

In his article 7 principles of sound public policy, Lawrence W. Reed has put this as one of the principles of sound public policy. Watching the struggle of the characters in the movie thorugh the freezing nights and arid desert, one is tempted to ask, "Is freedom worth it? Is liberty worth all these risk and troubles?" But in the scene where the Pole with night blindness respond to the remark that he might die while escaping with "..then I will die a free man" and the last scene when these characters reach India and achieve freedom, the joy in their eyes and the obstacles they overcame says it all, 'yeah, it's worth it'.

  • The greatest harm totalitarianism does to freedom of mankind or society is the way it destroys even basic sense of morality in the society and alienates people from each other.

Janusz's wife is tortured and forced to make accusations against her own husband condemning her to life long regret and guilt. People cannot speak what they think even at the gulags (labor camps) as one character says at one scene "...Stalin has ears everywhere" and "...whole Russia has become a huge prison". Another brilliant movie called "The Lives of Others (2006) also deals with the way totalitarianism destroys lives and morality of people.

  • The huge and vicious net of propaganda and lies  created by totalitarian systems creates an artificial reality for common people and perpetuates such systems.

The character Valka in the movie truly represents the common folks (in thoughts not in activities) living under totalitarian systems like Communism. They fail to understand the implications totalitarianism has in their lives and tend to adapt to the system. For them the dictator always remains a hero no matter what he does. The scene where Valka assaults the comic character for making fun of Stalin (although Valka himself has been sentenced to labor camp) and asserts that Stalin is a hero who takes away from rich and gives it to the poor reflects how common people generally tend to look at communism and communist dictators. The point can be further emphasized by the fact that even though Mao Zedong is said to have killed more than 30 million people directly and indirectly and yet he is still considered Godlike by the older generation. Although the same can't be said about the new generation. I think it's because of the huge and vicious net of propaganda created by totalitarian systems that people tend to think that way. And I believe it is one of the incentive for communist dictators as no matter how many their wrong doings they will still be celebrated and cherished more by the common folks who survive their misdeeds.