Last night we watched “The Way Back” starring Ed Harris and a superb cast of actors (including one 16 year old girl). The movie is based on a true story of an original group of 7-8 men who walked away from an Siberian prison camp in 1941. My husband, as a young boy, had read the book that was first published in 1955 titled “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” written by Ronald Downing. That alone clinched our decision to experience this epic journey through cold, mountain passes and thirsty, Mongolian deserts. My husband wanted to see how close the movie fit to his recollection of reading this book 45-50 years ago.
Interestingly enough, Ronald Downing had started his own quest in Tibet of the legendary abominable snowman. However, he instead started gathering information about a Polish man, Slavomir Rawicz, who had walked across eastern Siberia to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, through China, Tibet and the Himalayans to finally gain his freedom in India. That was more compelling to write about than a snowman.
No doubt the film’s director Peter Weir had some parts of Downing’s book “Hollywood-ized” However, the main meaning comes across in the special features after the movie. That is, the inhumanity present in 100s of concentration camps throughout the Soviet Union is little known by people from the West. I’m guessing for every 100 movies about Nazi atrocities in concentration camps, you have one movie about what Stalin did to his own people of the U.S.S.R. with the Siberian gulags. (That would also include Kazakhstan’s KARLAG system too)
The Soviet system was extremely brutal to their political prisoners who were imprisoned alongside REAL criminals of thieves and murderers. There is one character, Valka, in this story who owned a knife, he called it “the wolf.” He also had tatooed on his chest the faces of Lenin and Stalin. Though he believed in communism, he actually helped the other “politicals” survive in the wilds with the use of his knife. Yet he turned back once they got to the Trans-Siberian railway which they thought was the end of the Soviet Union and walking into freedom…sadly Mongolia had been taken over by USSR and so their trek to freedom continued.
The movie skipped over the Himalayans since the over two hour long movie had already shown its audience enough of the bitter cold of Siberia and reaching Lake Baikal and then the dry desert scenes. Also, I don’t think the actors or camera and production crews could fathom doing more marathon type survivalist living in the mountains.
The real hero of this story (played by Jim Sturgess) in both the movie and the book was Slavomir Rawicz, this Polish army officer who had been captured by the Red Army and accused of being a Nazi. His wife had been tortured to create a false testimony against him and Slavomir was summarily imprisoned by the Communists out to Siberia. He successfully trekked 4,000 miles after escaping from a Siberian prisoner of war camp. He survived the ordeal which lasted about a year because he knew how to live in the outdoors and survive on nature’s food and water. He was accused by the Ed Harris character, known only as “Mr. Smith” of not being able to survive in the prisoner’s camp because he was too kind and helped other prisoners. Perhaps his kindness and knowledge of how to survive is what eventually prevailed and got the two other men out alive with him.
Apparently, the older American, dubbed “Mr. Smith” had earlier watched his 17 year old son die at the mercy of communists then he was sent to the gulag and once “free” went on the Lhasa, Tibet. We don’t know if he survived once he parted ways with Slavomir and the others. Also, I’m not sure if the movie ended accurately which showed how Slavomir had waited until Poland was free from the bonds of communist oppression to see his wife again after being separated for almost 50 years. I would like to get a copy of the old book titled “The Long Walk” to read what my husband had read 50 years ago. Such a remarkable story had a great impact on him. The movie may have a profound impact on many other westerners as well.
Why don’t more people in the West know about the gulag system that happened throughout Russia and Kazakhstan? Little is written because few people survived the cruel brutalities! I would highly recommend watching this movie “The Way Back.”