Saturday, May 25, 2013
The Way Back 2010
Plot During World War II, Janusz Wieszczek (Jim Sturgess), a young Polish officer held by Soviets as a POW, is interrogated by NKVD. When the Soviets cannot force him to admit he is a spy, they bring his wife and extort from her, a statement condemning Janusz. As a result, he is sentenced to 20 years in one of the Gulag forced labour camps deep in Siberia.
At the camp, Janusz meets Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an American engineer, Khabarov (Mark Strong), an actor, Valka (Colin Farrell), a hardened Russian criminal, Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), a Polish artist, Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), a Latvian priest, Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a Pole suffering from night blindness, and Zoran (Dragoş Bucur), a Yugoslavian accountant. Khabarov secretly tells Janusz that he is planning to escape south to Mongolia, passing Lake Baikal. Mr. Smith tells Janusz that it is just one of Khabarov's fantasies to keep his morale high, but Janusz decides to implement the plan. He escapes with Mr. Smith, Valka, Voss, Tomasz, Zoran, and Kazik during a severe snowstorm in order to cover their tracks
During the second night of their trek, Kazik freezes to death after losing his way to the hide-away while looking for wood, and is later buried by the group. After many days of travelling across the snows of Siberia, the group reach Lake Baikal. There they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish girl, who tells them a story of her parents being murdered by Russian soldiers, and her escape from a collective farm near Warsaw. Mr. Smith realises that her story is a lie as Warsaw is ruled by the Germans, but agrees with the group to let her in. Shortly afterwards, she admits that her parents were communists but that the communist rulers "killed them anyways".
When the group reach an unpatrolled border between Russia and Mongolia, Valka decides to stay, as he still sees Russia as his home, and Josef Stalin as a hero. The rest continue to Ulaanbaatar, but soon they see images of Stalin and a red star. Janusz realises that Mongolia is under communist control and tells the group that India is the closest refuge for them. As they continue south across the Gobi desert, lack of water, sandstorms, sunburn, blisters and sun-stroke weakens the group. Irena collapses several times and soon dies. A few days later, Tomasz collapses and dies. Mr. Smith is on the verge of death, but after being motivated by Janusz, Zoran and Voss, he decides to rejoin the group and the four find a stream of water and avoid dehydration.
As they reach the Himalayas, all on the verge of death, they are rescued by a Tibetan monk who takes them to a Buddhist monastery, where they regain their strength. Mr. Smith decides to go to Lhasa, where one of his US Army contacts will help him get back to America. The remaining three continue to trek through the Himalayas and soon reach India.
At the end of the film, the final three say their goodbyes as Zoran and Voss stay in India and Janusz keeps walking around the world until 1989, when Poland gets rid of the communists. The final scene of the movie shows Janusz, fifty years later, returning to his house, seen in several hallucinations, and reuniting with his wife.
Cast Jim Sturgess as Janusz Wieszczek, a young Polish inmate taken Prisoner of War during the Soviet invasion of Poland
Colin Farrell as Valka, a tough Russian inmate.
Ed Harris as Mr. Smith, an American inmate.
Saoirse Ronan as Irena Zielińska, an orphaned teenage Polish girl on the run from Soviet Russia who meets up with the fugitives near a lake.
Mark Strong as Khabarov
Dragoş Bucur as Zoran
Gustaf Skarsgård as Voss
Production Filming Principal photography took place in Bulgaria, Morocco
Background The film is loosely based on The Long Walk, a book by Sławomir Rawicz, depicting his alleged escape from a Siberian gulag and subsequent 4,000-mile walk to freedom in India. Very popular, it sold over 500,000 copies and is credited with inspiring many explorers. In 2006, the BBC unearthed records (including some written by Rawicz himself) that showed that, rather than having escaped from the Gulag, in fact in 1942, he had been released by the USSR. In May 2009, Witold Gliński, a Polish World War II veteran living in the United Kingdom, came forward to claim that Rawicz's story was true but was actually an account of what happened to him, not Rawicz. Glinski's claims also have been seriously questioned. In addition, in 1942, a group of Siberian Gulag escapees is said to have hiked into India. However this too is suspect. Though the director Peter Weir continues to claim that the so-called long walk happened, he himself now describes The Way Back as "essentially a fictional film."
Four years ago, I produced a documentary for BBC Radio 4 on the subject, hoping to track down the evidence to show that Rawicz really had done this incredible feat.
That documentary led Peter Weir to us.
"I contacted Hugh Levinson, the producer of this programme, having heard the BBC radio programme that actually raised the question of its veracity in a very sharp way and began my own investigation," he said.
"And out of that I came to the conclusion that I couldn't be sure that Slavomir Rawicz was himself on this long walk. He was certainly arrested and imprisoned - but did he do the walk?"
The evidence we found suggested the answer was No.
Walking into history
In The Long Walk (1956) Slavomir Rawicz describes being arrested, tortured and sent to a Siberian prison camp, after the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.
He escapes with a group of prisoners and walks south, across Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas, meeting a Polish girl on the way.
In the mountains, Rawicz sees two mysterious figures, which he states are yeti.
The girl and three of the men die en route, but four of them make it to the safety of British India.
The Long Walk has sold more than half a million copies and been translated into 25 languages. Rawicz died in the UK in 2004.
The film rights were first bought by the actor Laurence Harvey. They have been transferred many times. The Peter Weir movie stars Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan
A few weeks after our documentary aired, there was a baroque twist. An anonymous letter arrived, suggesting we contact a man who might be of interest.
Director Peter Weir dedicates the film to three unknown survivors It led us to Camborne in Cornwall, to the home of Witold Glinski.
He is an elderly Pole, courteous with a wry sense of humour - and an extraordinary story to tell.
He was interned in the gulag and, just like Rawicz, he escaped in a snowstorm. Just like Rawicz, he took the same route, surviving the heat of the Gobi Desert and the heights of the Himalayas, with one instinct forcing him on.
"I thought: I'm going to get a plane, train as a pilot, and then I get high, fly to Moscow, look for the Kremlin and blast it out of the ground," he said.
"That was my ambition, what was driving me. This was the driving force inside me, revenge for what the Germans and Russians did."
Glinski said he even shared some companions with Rawicz - such as a young Polish girl who died along the walk, and an enigmatic American known only as Mr Smith.
Was it possible that Glinski was the real hero and that Rawicz had stolen his story? Perhaps. We could find no evidence to corroborate Glinski's vivid account of his escape and trek.
Yet there might be a clue in what he described as a strange encounter in a street in London in the 1940s. Glinski says two men approached him, one a bedraggled Polish officer, the other a dapper Englishman.
Continue reading the main story
It's about the struggle that all of us have to survive every day”
"They said, 'Are you Witold Glinski?'
"I said, 'Yes, what do you want?'"
He said they wanted to talk to Glinski about writing Polish history and that they were interested in where he came from and how he got to England.
"I said, 'I don't have anything to tell you'," Glinski recalled.
Later he realised that the Englishman was a journalist called Ronald Downing - the ghost writer of The Long Walk.
He suspects that Downing had somehow acquired a transcript of a debriefing interview in which Glinski recounted his story, and that he later conspired with Rawicz to pretend the story was his.
And there is more evidence that even if Rawicz didn't do the walk, someone else did.
We learned of a British intelligence officer who said he had interviewed a group of haggard men in Calcutta in 1942 - a group of men who had escaped from Siberia and then walked all the way to India.
And then from New Zealand came news of a Polish engineer who had apparently acted as an interpreter for this very same interview in Calcutta with the wretched survivors.
These stories are second-hand, and far from conclusive proof, but for Mr Weir, they convinced him that there was an essential truth in the story that he wanted to retain.
"There was enough for me to say that three men had come out of the Himalayas, and that's how I dedicate my film, to these unknown survivors. And then I proceed with essentially a fictional film."
This is why the film - to be released later this month - has a new title, The Way Back, and why the central character is not called Slavomir Rawicz.
Yet it retains its power as a tale of courage and endurance.
"It's about the struggle that all of us have to survive every day," Mr Weir says.
"This is on an epic scale, but survival is at the heart of it, and what keeps you going with all the difficulties and pain of life and the bad luck."
The Long Walk will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 13.30 on Sunday 5 December. The Way Back opens in the UK on 26 December 2010.
Regardless of whether this particular 'long walk' really took place, during World War II other Poles undertook difficult journeys attempting to leave the Soviet Union. Accounts of their escapes can be found in the archives of the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London, England, and in the Hoover Institute, Stanford University, in California. Also, several relatively verifiable and believable escapee autobiographies have been published in English, e.g. Michael Krupa's Shallow Graves in Siberia.
List of films Film Year Ref.
127 Hours 2010 
Alive 1993 
All Is Lost 2013 
Buried 2010 
Cast Away 2000 
Deliverance 1972 
Dirty Dozen, TheThe Dirty Dozen 1967 
Edge, TheThe Edge 1997 
Escape from Alcatraz 1979 
Flight of the Phoenix, TheThe Flight of the Phoenix 1965 
Frozen 2010 
Grey, TheThe Grey 2012 
Into the Wild 2007 
The Naked Prey 1966
Open Water 2003 
Poseidon Adventure, TheThe Poseidon Adventure 1972 
Quest for Fire 1981 
Rabbit-Proof Fence 2002 
Rescue Dawn 2006 
Survival Quest 1989 
Swiss Family Robinson 1960 
Touching the Void 2003 
Ultimate Warrior, TheThe Ultimate Warrior 1975 
Way Back, TheThe Way Back 2010 
Life of Pi 2012