In 1934, 80,000 Chinese soldiers marched thousands of miles to tighten the grip of communism across Asia. Less well-known is that in 1940, eight Siberian fugitives marched thousands of miles to escape it.
"The Way Back" is based on a true story and, in the hands of Peter Weir, who has directed such classy action films as "Master and Commander" and "Gallipoli," you would expect an epic with brains and hearts. Instead we settle for sturdy craft, with a stellar cast struggling to breathe life into the cold material.
Two significant factors make this saga different from a conventional prison-escape story: the political nature of the prison and the wintry wasteland that surrounds it. The film does a painfully good job of evoking the harsh conditions in the Siberian gulag, but it tells us surprisingly little about the inmates' alleged crimes or the homes for which they long.
Our hero is Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Pole accused of disloyalty to the Communist Party and forcibly denounced by his trembling wife. Exiled to a prison camp in snowbound Siberia, he is immediately befriended by Khabarov (Mark Strong), an actor who teaches Janusz the necessary survival skills and confides a plan to escape.
When an opportunity presents itself, the escapees include an American engineer who was arrested in Moscow (Ed Harris), a cutthroat gangster (Colin Farrell) and the artist who sketched nudie pictures for the lonely inmates (Gustaf Skarsgard).
As they trek south toward Mongolia, the starving men are followed and eventually joined by a mysterious girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Yet there is never a hint of sexual tension, let alone cannibalism or even much bickering, among the desperate escapees. Their greatest foe is geography, which means we see lots of physical suffering and some impressive panoramas, from pine forests to parched sand dunes, but we don't get a glimpse into the inner lives of the characters.
Within this downbeat dirge, every quiver of liveliness is amplified, from a juicy deer that's trapped in a bog to a Buddhist temple filled with fallen treasures.
But the long stretches between stations make "The Way Back" an arduous road.