“The Way Back” or “The Long Walk” of 4,000 miles out of Siberia’s prison

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.”

10 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    J. Otto Pohl said,

    The book has been reprinted now that the movie is out. I saw it for sale at Borders when I was in the US this last winter. There is still some controversy over the accuracy of this particular story. Interestingly enough the new edition of the book addresses this controversy as one of its selling points. If nothing else you should be able to get the new edition through Amazon.

    The question as to why the GULag is not really part of popular memory in the way the Holocaust is today has been addressed by people before. Applebaum has a good section on it in Gulag. So I won’t rehash it here. But, it is not so much that few people survived the GULag. The majority of prisoners to pass through the camps survived to be released. In the mid-1950s there were millions of camp survivors living in the USSR. But, few of these people ever wrote anything down or talked about it to other people to record.

    We are lucky in retrospect to have one very good literary, oral and memoir based history of the camp system in the form of Solzhenityn’s Gulag Archipelago. I have a recent blog post up about this. There is far more knowledge today about Stalin’s crimes than there used to be. At the same time Stalin is becoming ever more popular in Russia not in spite of increased knowledge about his crimes, but because of increased knowledge about his crimes.

    • 2

      kazaknomad said,

      Thanks Otto for this post to clarify. I’ll look up the book on Amazon. We have a good library system here where we live. I’ll check out the Gulag book by Applebaum. Of course on my list of books to read are many of Solzhenitzyn’s books, Cancer Ward, Gulag Archipelago and others. The popularity of Stalin is very perplexing to me, actually it saddens me immensely.

  2. 3

    rfbreton said,

    I just finished watching “The Way Back” and I must say it was a very sad and depressing story, even more so when it was described as based on a true story. I was not expecting to be entertained by this movie. (no more than I would be watching “Schindler’s List” or “The Passion of Christ”), but I was intrigued by the effort for a director to tell this story with a movie. It was well made and the acting was superb, but the last five minutes of the movie seemed to be rushed and missing and important point. The group awakens after resting at the Tibetan Monestery to find one of them missing. All that is said is , “He’s gone”, and Mr. Smith nods knowingly. Next, you see the remaining three (including Mr. Smith) trudging over the Himilayas in winter. Immediately afterwards, the three younger characters arrive on foot in India to a hospitable welcome, but he older American, Mr. Smith is absent. There is no mention of him or hint as to what happened to him. One can only assume that he split off from the trio and continued on to Lhasa to meet with his American contact. Perhaps he died of exposure in the mountains, or fell to his death. A very curious way to end such an interesting story.

    • 4

      aparjit said,

      IF U WATCH IT PROPERLY THEN U WOULD SEE THAT MR.SMITH WAS TALKING ABOUT AN AMERICAN MISSION WHICH IS CONTINUE SOME PART OF CHINA(according to movie) BY WHAT HE WENT OUT AND END IS LONG WALK TO FREEDOM…….

  3. 5

    […] The Way Back review (kazakhnomad.wordpress.com) […]

  4. 6

    If you guys have time check this out as regards to the authenticity of Rawicz claims http://www.mikaelstrandberg.com/the-long-walk-articles/ Do have an opinion.

  5. 7

    kazaknomad said,

    Thanks Mikael for your insight about Rawicz’ claims. I would like to write more about the gulags in Kazakhstan. I’ve been to Dolinka (near Karaganda) and heard some stories from my former Kazakh students. Two million people who died in the gulags under Soviet rule is perhaps a conservative estimate. Kazakhstan had many, many political prisoners that is so little known because it is deemed as “the ends of the earth.” Yes, I DO have stories I want to write up…no time with teaching writing these days.

  6. 8

    Aline said,

    Thank you for your interesting post about this excellent movie of such a tragic & sad story which I saw last night. Another story that comes to mind is “One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The horrors of life in the gulag recounted in this book haunted me for a long time.

  7. 10

    Susan Clarke said,

    I read this book when I was in my teens and I did find details it very moving. I thought I remembered the girl surviving and that they reached a sea port.
    Still a very good film. The details of their legs turning black and eventual death.
    Would be good to find the book again to see how well my memory serves me…


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