Mr. Smith: In the camps, some saw death as freedom.
Janusz: Then why didn’t you just kill yourself?
Mr. Smith: Survival was a kind of protest. Being alive was my punishment.
The 2010 war drama, The Way Back, depicts the 4,000-mile escape from a Soviet-controlled Siberian gulag (prison labor camp) to India by seven prisoners of war. The POWs deal with far more than the threat of capture. The extreme weather and elements create a perilous journey as the group walk through snowstorms, mountains, insufferable mosquitoes and a seemingly endless desert – all with little food and water. However, the most devastating problem that arises is the moral question of leaving a man behind.
The POW characters are the following:
- Janusz – A Polish young man accused of promoting anti-Soviet resistance, he organizes the escape and has a background in wilderness survival.
- Mr. Smith – Cynical ex-military American, Mr. Smith was arrested in Moscow for espionage and is, initially, a reluctant escapee.
- Valka – As a Russian thug and overall criminal, Valka threatens his way into the escape plan much to the hatred of the fellow escapees. His only allegiance is to Janusz, who masterminded the plan, and Russia.
- Voss – Before his arrest, Voss was a Latvian priest, but he is now dealing with a guilty conscience.
- Zoran – While Zoran used to be an accountant before the gulag, the Yugoslavian has a talent for comedy and uses that to entertain his follower walkers.
- Kazik – He is a young Pole suffering from night blindness, a disorder that may jeopardize his survival.
- Tomasz – Since Tomasz worked as a pastry chief before the war, he is the group’s cook but his real passion is for drawing.
- Irena – She joins the escapees during their flight and, at first, the teenager hesitates about revealing her tragic past. Through her, the escapees find out more about each other and themselves.
The Way Back is based on Slavomir Rawicz’s 1956 memoir, The Long Walk, about his Siberian gulag escape to India. The extraordinary tale of human courage and strength sold over 500,000 copies and was translated into 25 languages. In 2006, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) uncovered evidence that challenges Rawicz’s 4,000-mile walk. They cite the fact that Rawicz never supported his story with any evidence at all as questionable. In addition, evidence they have uncovered does not seem to match with his story and since Rawicz died in 2004, answers will be difficult to come by. Interesting though is that in 1942, Rupert Mayne, a British intelligence officer stationed in India, did interview three emaciated men. These men claimed to have escaped from a Siberia gulag. Mayne could not remember their names, so while the memoir may have been a fabrication, it is possible that a group did in fact make this incredible journey.
I enjoyed The Way Back on its own merits – good acting and directing, beautiful scenery and a good story regardless of its historical accuracy. Currently it is streaming on Netflix if you have an account, but it can also be found at other movie rental places.
Levinson, Hugh, “Walking the Talk?” October 30, 2006 – Found online at the BBC website.