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January 23, 2011

Disparate Group Makes Remarkable Escape from Siberian Prison Camp in 'The Way Back'

by Alan Silverman

The controversial account of a remarkable escape from a Siberian prison camp during World War II is the inspiration for a new film directed and co-written by six-time Oscar nominee Peter Weir. Here's a look at The Way Back.



"I have to get back."
"Go over the Himalayas? How?"
"We walk."


On a wintry day in 1940 Siberia, seven prisoners slip out of a Soviet Union 'Gulag' prison camp into a swirling blizzard that masks their escape. It is the beginning of an astounding year-long journey that takes them - on foot - some 6,500 kilometers across frozen tundra, scorching desert and treacherous mountains.

The disparate group includes a criminal, a priest, Polish war veterans, an actor and an American engineer. Once out of the labor camp, they must survive in the barren landscape and helping even other starving travelers could risk their own lives.

"Are you planning on surviving on half-rations, son?"
"He's an old man."
"I'm an old man. We will be alive in the morning. He won't. Kindness: that can kill you here."


Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a Polish Army veteran whose wilderness skills prove vital to the group's survival. The English actor says he discovered the key to portraying his character when he met former prisoners of the Gulag.

"What is great about doing an historical film is that there is information - real accounts and real stories," notes Sturgess. "I was so lucky to spend time with real survivors of the camps: real Polish people who are now living in England. I tracked those guys down and one guy not only was a survivor of a camp, but an escapee. To meet a real escapee who was Polish who was out in Siberia working on building the trans-Siberian railway, who broke out and he survived: there was proof that he did it."

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Ed Harris plays the enigmatic 'Mr. Smith,' an American engineer who went to the Soviet Union to help build the Moscow Metro system, but ended up a prisoner in Siberia. Harris says his research for the role revealed details of a history few Americans know today.

"I had absolutely no idea of not just Siberia, but the extent of the Gulag system,' Harris says. "From the end of the Russian revolution to 1955 [a couple of years after Stalin died] there were thousands of these places and 18 - 20 million people went through the Gulag system. And I had no idea about the Americans that had gone over - thousands of them. There was a Russian trade agency that advertised in the States in the early part of 1931 and in the first eight months of the year they had 100,000 applicants for jobs in Russia. There were 13 million unemployed in America with 20% unemployment in America and farmers, doctors, lawyers, engineers - a lot of people went over there [and] couldn't get back."

The Way Back is inspired by the international best seller The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, first published 55 years ago. The author, Slavomir Rawicz, claimed the novel was based on his personal experiences, but years later unsealed records of the former Soviet Union contradicted his story. The controversy intrigued and challenged the film's co-writer and director, Peter Weir.

"I nearly turned it down," admits Weir. "I loved the book - its epic dimension both of the human spirit and landscapes - and then discovered I hadn't been told that there was a doubt that the author had made the walk. So I asked 'what about the walk itself?' The producers said 'we're not sure.' So I said 'unless I can determine that the walk actually happened, I can't do it; because if the walk happened I can fictionalize it and be inspired by the book and dedicated it to 'unknown escapees' - which is what I did - but if I can't prove the walk then, unfortunately, I'm out.' Anyway, we did get that proof and I was able to carry on, re-titled it and felt somewhat freer, actually. I could pretty much re-do it [because] what was left was the walk itself."

The international cast of The Way Back includes English stage and screen actor Mark Strong as the prisoner who plans the escape. Dubliner Colin Farrell is a hardened criminal who joins the breakout and young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan plays a clever teenaged street urchin who becomes part of the group on their long walk to freedom. The Way Back uses locations in Bulgaria and Morocco to stand in for the forbidding landscapes of Siberia and the Gobi Desert.