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The Way Back

Triumph and Adversity


In many a Hollywood film one may suppose adversity is present only for the opportunity it provides for triumph. The greater the adversity, the more room for overcoming it, and the victory is all the more sweet. If one watches Spartacus and The Way Back next to each other, though the gap between their making is fifty years, we can see amongst other things the importance of two elements: moral rectitude and the denial of character in its complex manifestations. Now to explore the function of Hollywood film in the triumph over adversity ‘genre’ we haven’t picked cynically weak examples from Hollywood hacks, but rather films by directors with reputations. Spartacus director Stanley Kubrick is of course one of the acknowledged masters of modern American film: a man who managed to persuade Warner brothers to give him both final cut and financial carte blanche that provided freedom in the cutting room and freedom on the set. As John Baxter says in his biography Stanley Kubrick: “Stanley was nothing like Hitchcock or Spielberg, who worked out everything in advance. The usual method is to film the scene from one angle then put in a cutaway from a different angle, but with Stanley the cutaway would be a complete reshooting of the scene from that new angle. He just shoots one hell of a lot.” Which helps explain the increasing length of time between projects, and that would give him plenty options in the editing suite; options that he and not the studio would choose from. However, Spartacus was a Kubrick as director for hire: star and executive producer Kirk Douglas fired Anthony Mann and employed Kubrick (who had already directed Douglas in Paths of Glory) to take over. In other words, the genre conventions are stronger than the directorial vision no matter the importance of the filmmaker.

One assumes no such compromises were expected of Peter Weir, another director who increasingly takes his time over his projects. It was seven years between Weir’s last film, Master and Commander, and his new one, but it is as if with Kubrick the compromises were external – Douglas’s insistence that Kubrick bend to the demands of his star who was also of course the film’s executive producer – one feels in Weir’s case they are internal: that he accepts the inevitable narrative compromises of working in mainstream cinema. Weir may have directed the ambiguous Picnic at Hanging Rock in the mid-seventies, but there has often been in his work an acceptance of conventional film grammar, in Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Fearless. While he is often drawn to people being thrown into worlds that are alien to them, and situations that contain religious or metaphysical overtones (like the films mentioned, and also The Last Wave), he accepts the assumptions behind mainstream film.

The Way Back is based on a supposedly true story of a handful of prisoners that escaped a Siberian prison and walked all the way to India, over the Himalayas.  When asked if they had seen the film, Weir said, “I don’t think they’ve seen it yet and I don’t know that all will be invited. But I think they’ll probably think you can’t really film what they went through.” Earlier in the interview he says what drew him to the material was “I think it sounds corny to say, but the triumph of the human spirit – the will to keep going.” Here Weir has more self-consciousness toward the cliché than he offers in the work itself. The Way Back is yet another idiomatically obvious Hollywood film from a clearly intelligent man, but the difference, as we’ll go onto analyse, between Weir and Kubrick is that where Kubrick was forced into compromise; Weir, like many a contemporary filmmaker of potential interest, has internalised the necessary concessions.

This perhaps often has to do with certain contradictions barely acknowledged. While Weir insists that it was important to shoot on location, saying “For this one, in particular, it was important for the actors to get out there. It was important for the actors to experience it”, he also talks later of the desert shoot in Morocco: hardly a country on the itinerary from Siberia to India. This is not to say all films should be shot on the locations they claim as their settings, but in Weir’s comments there seems to be a filmmaker who wants to insist on his work’s authenticity in using actual locations (as opposed to CGI backdrops), but then casually mentions the use of a location that has nothing to do with the walkers’ itinerary. When we also know that actually the true story it proclaims to be isn’t quite the case either (that the story was told second-hand to the writer who wrote the book but claimed it as his own experience) the film seems as non-diegetically insincere as diegetically phoney. It’s as if both in terms of the reality it claims to be based on and the manner in which it chooses to film that reality, there seems to be a pragmatic acceptance of the theme taking precedence over the subject, but a theme so weakly original that it leads to Weir’s shoulder shrugging acceptance that the story is itself a cliché.

Take for example the scene early in the film where Colin Farrell’s violent Russian thief Valka insists a man gives him a jumper. The young man stands up to him and Valka stabs him through the stomach, removes the jumper and hands it to his criminal friend. Obviously now there will be a hole in the jumper, but the film doesn’t seem interested in the stupidity of Valka’s action; only the violence of it. After his friend receives the jumper we see him wiping off the blood, but we might instead be musing over how useful the jumper will be with its huge hole. It in such moments one senses the reality of the situation giving way to the predictability of character and scene. Farrell is set up as a man without conscience, and the scene’s singular purpose is to make it clear. It is partly to allow for character contrast: we’ve been told earlier still in the film that our central character Janusz (Jim Sturges) is a good man, but that he has something that can kill him in the gulag: kindness.  Valka has something that will kill others: meanness. Later in the film after one of the escapees dies, Valka sees that every cloud has a silver lining: it means more food available for everybody else. This is the optimism of evil: where another’s death is one’s own good fortune. The other characters look back disgusted: their own relative goodness contrasted with Valka’s own selfishness.

It is these types of exchanges that leave the theme more present than the subject, but it is a theme that is not elaborated, but repeated. What is the difference, we may wonder, and how does a filmmaker elaborate their theme by weaving it through the plausibility of its subject, as we proposed Weir fails to do when he gives us a jumper covered in blood but asks us not to fret over the inevitable hole?

If the film’s theme is triumph over adversity, then what it chooses to do is show the triumphs from an overly anthropocentric point of view that makes us aware of the triumph over adversity over the triumph over nature. In Akira Kurosawa’s film set in Siberia, Dersu Uzala, the central character and the Russian soldiers he scouts for, do not triumph over nature, they deal with it as a necessary way of coping with nature. Now of course in The Way Back the point is that the characters are not trappers, they are struggling with the natural environment as they walk from the frozen wastes of Siberia, through the Gobi desert and beyond the Himalayas.  But partly what makes the film repetitive rather than elaborative is that the characters take precedence over the situations, and that the characters represent certain values the situations then express. In one scene a young woman they pick up on the way is lying ill in the desert with her feet badly swollen and she talks about how much of a burden she is to the others. Now a film more interested in elaboration over repetition would have showed us the steady deterioration physically of this woman, but instead we see the feet swollen and it provides the opportunity to register another character’s nobility and struggle. The damage to her feet she sustains through the walk is recognized through the noble suffering we witness, rather than the accumulated hardship. This is cinematic short-hand, so that we know more about the character than the situation, more about how she reacts to suffering instead of the process of the suffering itself.

One can think of similar moments of noble sentiment in Spartacus. At the beginning of the film Douglas is the titular slave who helps a colleague after he collapses under the weight of the stones he is carrying in the blistering heat. As Spartacus goes to his aid the Roman soldiers come and kick and whip our hero. Again, as with The Way Back, the film isn’t interested in the process of slavery –  in the immense difficulty of breaking and carrying rocks all day – it is an opportunity for the film to show how different Spartacus is from everybody else; to show how much more nobility he possesses. What it does is not so much illustrate the difficulty of slavery, but the heroic decency of Spartacus. As he gets dragged off by the Romans one of them says, “It’s Spartacus again, this time he will die”. Here is a man who has often come to help other slaves less strong than he, and who will now be expected to die for his humanity. Is it not very similar to the scene near the beginning of The Way Back, where Janusz gives part of his ration to an obviously starving, dying man, and where Mr Smith (Ed Harris) tells him kindness will kill him? The physical struggle of the slave; the hunger and illness of the dying man, are of no interest to the film: this is cameo helplessness – it provides an opportunity for showboating humanity by Spartacus and Janusz, and nicely locates the viewer in the best possible of moral positions.

Let us call this moral focalization, taking into account comments by Colin McArthur in Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots. Focalization is the way in which filmmakers create identification within a given moment in a film, and we notice in each instance – in Spartacus and The Way Back – that the emphasis isn’t at all on the characters who are suffering, but on how their suffering gives the leading character the chance to do good, and by extension leave the audience feeling good. What is the problem with this we may ask? We may answer: there are several. Firstly, that the situation dissolves into the moral focalization of the good character. The cameo helplessness means there is no intrinsic situation, but an extrinsic moral. In Spartacus we learn nothing about the slave’s suffering, nothing about how long happens to be his day, how much food he is given, nor how much water he gets to drink in relation to the temperature he is working in. All these are irrelevant question next to Spartacus helping him out, as we have the complexity of situation given over not even to character, but merely the moral focalization of that character. What we then have is a double retreat: the situation isn’t realised and the character isn’t developed, and this leads to our earlier point about repetition over progression.

If we have too many scenes exemplifying the leading character’s goodness and nobility, we have neither the situation nor the character evolving. In both Spartacus and The Way Back, the characters do not become known to us as multi-faceted beings, because their purpose is to be heroic figures. The events do not realise them; the events we see reaffirm their character. It is often said that an actor would prefer to be play a villain than a hero because the part is more ‘interesting’. Central to this lack of interest in many a heroic part is that the character remains the same and the situations are what we could call reiterative: they affirm his or her essential qualities of decency, nobility, concern and drive. They are not transformative: their qualities do not surprise us, and so there is often very little dramatic tension in a hero’s psychology – only in their capacity to bring about a required achievement, a transformation of situation within a reiteration of character. In both Spartacus and The Way Back there are of course major differences in this transformation. Spartacus is a slave determined to free the people from Roman tyranny. The tyranny of the Soviet Union quickly fades in The Way Back after the escapees flee the prison and nature becomes the enemy, only to return in a newsreel sequence at the end showing the history of Soviet oppression. Also, while Spartacus is the unequivocal hero of Kubrick’s film, Janusz is more part of an ensemble. But the basic point holds, and that is the reiterative nature of each  as the situations affirm the character without especially expanding upon it as the complexity of the scene becomes irrelevant next to this affirmation.

Yet this egotism is very different from an ostensibly similar one proposed by Parker Tyler in an essay called ‘Psychodrama’, and it can also help explain why we disagree with Robert McKee when he claims in Story that story is character and character story.  “Psychodrama is, so to speak, a one-man theatre,” Tyler says, “with an audience of potential actors under the charge of a new-fashioned psychiatrist.” “The psychodramatist’s own unconscious helps and so does the ‘coaching’ of the psychiatrist,” as Tyler reckons Brando, by adopting the Method to film, “has logically touched the spirit of the Psychodrama.” When the Method meets psychodrama, what happens is that the actor “makes up his own speeches in given situations as though he were living ‘life’.” In such a cinema the actor, whether it be Brando, James Dean or Montgomery Clift loses his heroic dimension and takes on a psychodynamic one. It may be the case that he is as egotistically central to the scene as Douglas is in Spartacus, but he is present within it very differently, and can consequently create far greater psychodramatic surprise, where Spartacus and The Way Back offer only dramatic surprise.

This is where we can disagree with McKee when he says “we cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character, character is structure. They’re the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other.” But when he says the confusion arises from character and characterization being the same thing, he allows us to justify why character and story are not always so interconnected. “Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture…this singular assemblage of traits is characterization…but it is not character.” McKee insists “true character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” But is this really so; do we not often find that the essential nature is almost a given – as in Spartacus and The Way Back – and leaves most of the suspense in the tension of action and not at all in the tension of being? We may think of a scene quite late in Spartacus where Douglas is told that the slaves don’t have a chance against the Romans. Instead of doubting the odds, Spartacus proves even more indomitably sure of himself than usual. He insists that the slave knows that death is a release from life, from the slavery of their existence and thus they don’t fear death – unlike the Romans. This is why they will win. There is no revelation of character here; just yet another example of its reiteration.

In the psychodrama this isn’t the case, as the anti-hero comes into his own and the figure becomes much more the sum total of his characterization, and not merely the reiterating of his character. Shortly after insisting on the difference between character and characterization, McKee gives as an example of character as opposed to characterization a scene where an illegal alien who works as a housekeeper in a rusted out station wagon and a wealthy neurosurgeon driving a Porsche get caught behind a bus that loses control and bursts into flames. How will they act? The characterization lies in their differences, their biographical back story up until that moment. But their character resides in how they will react to the event. The surgeon has to get to work; the illegal alien doesn’t want to get caught, but will they rise to the demands of the occasion? Their characterization is very different, but do they have the same character, the same first principle belief in helping others? For McKee this reveals character in depth “Let’s say they both choose to help. This tells us more. But who chooses to help by calling for an ambulance and waiting? Who chooses to help by dashing into the burning bus? Let’s say they both rush for the bus – choice that reveals character in even greater depth.”

Is McKee correct; can character actually be curiously masked by major events and revealed much more in minor ones? In Javier Cercas’s novel The Soldiers of Salami, the narrator meets up with a figure called Roberto Bolano, a barely disguised fictive rendering of the now famous Chilean writer. At one moment Bolano distinguishes between a decent human being and a hero. “Actually, I think there’s almost always something, blind, irrational, instinctive in a hero’s behaviour, something that’s in their nature and inescapable.” He gives various examples but most especially that of a person who was walking along the street and noticed a house was in flames. He kept going back and savings lives until he lost his own. “I’m not sure if that guy was acting out of compassion, or some sort of benevolence; I think he acted out of a kind of instinct, a blind instinct that overcame him, took him over, acted for him.” It is the comment that a blind instinct overcame him, acted for him, that is interesting here. For Bolano, the person’s heroism went beyond character, into a realm that didn’t really reveal him at all. It went into the area of the inexplicable, beyond the sort of compassion and benevolence that McKee would see as revelation of the depth of a person in the quote above concerning true character. Where McKee wants the action to reveal the core self, Bolano would suggest it is in that very moment where the self evaporates.

In the sort of example McKee gives, like numerous scenes in Spartacus and The Way Back, the purpose seems less to reveal character than to express moral triumphalism. This is not a bad thing as far as it goes, but it isn’t quite the same as revelation of character. If we go back to some of our comments on psychodrama, we can see how revelation of character can come out of the psychodynamic dimension rather than the heroic dimension, even if the action happens to be ostensibly the same. Near the end of East of Eden, James Dean’s character, who has been presented as a troubled youth and the bad brother, recklessly risks his life to help his brother just after kissing the brother’s girlfriend on the big wheel they are sitting on. Initially stuck in his seat high up on the big wheel, as he watches the fight below, Dean clambers down the structure and helps his brother out. This is heroic act as psychodramatic action as it reveals character far more than McKee’s example, taking into account our comment on repetition of character as opposed to its elaboration, if we contrast it with a scene in Spartacus where the slave trainer tries to get Spartacus to rise to his taunts and physical abuse. Here we witness a noble slave but also an intelligent one. We see, in Spartacus’s set jaw, his proud eyes, his indignant stance, his character. We expect him to retain all these qualities, but to transform himself from a slave without power to a slave with power. Basically his character remains the same, whether he is being pushed around by a Roman, winning battles or, finally, crucified on the cross. He has no psychodramatic dimension, no transformative possibility. In East of Eden it is the very lack of resolute moral qualities in Dean’s character Cal that makes him interesting. It is where characterization and character meet and reveal complexity. He likes his bother’s girlfriend; doesn’t particularly like his brother – but nevertheless goes to his brother’s rescue. The way McKee describes revelation of character as someone put under pressure, this heroic action would be the character revealed. But director Elia Kazan doesn’t want to reveal the unity of his character but the opposite. “Cal is not that complex except that he has a schism, a complete division.” What interested Kazan about Dean was “Jimmy was always getting himself contorted. There was always some awkwardness, some tension in the body…It was so excessive it was almost psychotic.” Where Spartacus offers resolution; Cal offers irresolution. Where Spartacus would act in a given situation with the whole of himself allied to moral certitude; Cal offers up his actions ambivalently. Does he go to his brother’s rescue out of guilt for kissing his girlfriend, out of a need to prove himself to her (there is an element of death wish in clambering down off the big wheel) and again in getting into a fight with boys much bigger than he happens to be? What reveals character more deeply – Spartacus’s actions or Cal’s? Spartacus’s may show his essential character, but Cal’s show his essentially contradictory one. Spartacus’s actions are singularly heroic; Cal’s complexly confused – but all the deeper for the confusion.

Perhaps it is not a bad thing especially to have a character whose actions are singular and good, but then the events they come up against must surely be consistently surprising. One of the problems with The Way Back is that the characters are quickly set and the situations unsurprisingly overcome, no matter if several of the original band die along the way. If we have consistency of character and obviousness of situation, one feels too emphatically the heaviness of the theme: the sense that the obstacles put in the good characters’ way are not surprising, merely challenging: and the indomitableness of the good spirit will win out. It is as though Weir merely looked at the geographic distance covered and was a priori impressed. But he ends up with a threefold failure: he fails to bring the spaces to life or to create character complexity, and offers too few natural challenges that the characters have to overcome.

To help explain further the inadequacy of the latter we can return again to Dersu Uzala, and compare a scene where the trapper gets caught in a fast moving river with the moment in The Way Back where the characters cross a river semi-frozen by ice. In Dersu Uzala one feels the tactical skill required to save a life, as the trapper explains to the soldiers exactly how they can save him: they must chop down a tree and put it into the river so that he can grab on to it. In The Way Back it is no more than the pluckiness of a character that shortly before we’ve been thinking, and the other characters have been thinking, may be a burden. The young Polish woman they have picked up on the way hops across the ice and shows that it is solid enough to hold her. The others then follow. The purpose of the scene in Dersu Uzala is to show how the trapper gets into and out of difficult situations as a given of his life in the wilderness. The point in The Way Back is to show that the girl is plucky and not quite the liability some of the others think she is. It is an athropocentric moment of character justification: the scene we have witnessed so many times where the apprentice is more capable than anybody realised. There is nothing especially ingenious about her action. It just shows her reckless bravery. In Dersu Uzala the environment is the challenge that must be overcome, and this time it is the fast moving river that endangers Dersu’s life. How will he overcome that environmental obstacle with the help of the Russian soldiers? It is an interesting example of a lesson learnt at the same time a life is saved, with the person being saved in the process of offering the lesson so they can save his life. If in The Way Back the moment is egotistically anthropocentric – a moment of one up-manship on the girl’s part as some of the others have seen her as a hanger on – in Dersu Urzala it is a moment of weakness on Dersu’s part as he is in danger, but it is still his wisdom that must be mastered as the Russian soldiers save him following Dersu’s directions.

In Dersu Uzala, the film doesn’t develop character in the manner we’ve explored in relation to psychodrama – no matter the complexity of Dersu’s responses when he finds himself in an urban environment near the film’s conclusion. But it accepts the complexity at least of environment, so while character doesn’t especially develop, the environment constantly throws up fresh challenges. If we feel both The Way Back and Spartacus are homogenised works, it is that they lack complexity of character or exploration of milieu. They seem stale works, and perhaps The Way Back especially so – made as it was fifty years after Spartacus, and as if so many aesthetic developments had never taken place. Spartacus is a film from yesteryear directed by a great director working for hire; The Way Back is a film made by a director with relative freedom but as though he has internalised all the conventions that he could surely have eschewed and that feel so aesthetically out of date. Neither one thing nor another. Neither a complex exploration of character, nor a detailed examination of character, the film is merely an entertainment.


©Tony McKibbin