In a time when fantasy films have replaced adventure films, and historical dramas within that, Peter Weir's film, 'The Way Back', stands as an old fashioned epic slogging 6,500 kms from the winter wastes of Siberia, across the Gobi Desert, over the Himalayas and into India to deliver its payload -- the message of the value of freedom and the indomitability of the human spirit to reach that freedom.
Based on Slavomir Rawicz's memoir The Long Walk, the film depicts the long journey he and six others took escaping a Siberian prison during World War II, eventually making their way to freedom in India. Starring Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, and Saoirse Ronan, it's an intense and epic journey, and Weir masterfully presents it onscreen making the audience feel as if they are part of the tortuous trek.
That's the official line.
What makes this film unique is that not only did it experience great difficulty in securing financing and distribution, despite top talent and a good script, it has also fueled an authenticity contraversy between Polish refugee families, investigative journalists, historians, even adventurers who have been inspired by Rawicz's story over the years (or Witold Glinski's story, depending on which side you take) to retrace the grand adventure ( French Explorer Retraces teh Long Walk | Dave Anderson's 2004 Expedition | Recent Polish Expedition )
BBC Reporters claim that evicence supplied by former Soviet Republic Belarus proves that Slavomir Rawicz could not have been on this trek. But considering the efforts by Russia to discredit and sabotage Polish autonomy (Katyn Massacre, the assasination General Sikoski's and pressure on Britain to abandon the official Polish government in exile) and the very recent decapitation of Poland's anti-Moscow governement in what has been called the Kaytn Massacre Part II can we realy trust this evidence -- a Belarus document that Rawicz was released on a general Amnesty in 1942? Futher, there are also discrepencies in Witold's claim to the Long Walk namely by a fellow Polish classmate who lived with him on a collective farm in Siberia during the time the Long Walk was to have happened.
In the confusion and haze with little material primary evidence one fundamental item appears clear -- The Way Back film, captures the essential truth of a dehumanizing Soviet system that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Polish and East European refugees many of whom fled thousands of kilometers, some successfully, to freedom during the early 1940's. It was real for thousands of people.
In 1941, the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement with Britain, reluctantly brought Soviet Russia to release many of the 1.5 million Poles it had taken as slave labour in 1939. Released but without transportation, many made their way on foot to present day Iraq, the Middle East and Palestine, or India. Later groups of Polish nationals were deported and some became part of the Anders Army under direct command of the Polish government in exile in London.
Recently, Linda Wills published her research into the veracity of Rawicz' story in a book entitled, Looking For Mr. Smith. She too appears to cast serious doubts on Slavomir's membership in The Long Walk but upholds that the trek did in fact take place and that Witold Glinski was the likely leader. All the speculation, gesticulating in the media today, could of course be cleared up by one simple document -- that of British officer in India, Rupert Mayne, who remembered questioning 3 emaciated men who stated they walked out of Siberia. Or any official account or record of the men's treatment in India.
On February 4th, 2011, Zbigniew L. Stanczyk, Palo Alto, California in a discussion on the matter reveals the following:In March 1942, Chief Secretary to the Government of Bombay, Political and Services Departments, H.K. Kirpalani reported to the Consul General of Poland in Bombay about the arrival of a group of four Polish men who claimed to have escaped from the Soviet Gulag. They had crossed thousands of miles and were taken care of by the Government of India External Affairs Department. Four men recuperated for weeks in the local hospitals as per receipts from the Salvation Army and other facilities. Local government submitted expenses for their stay to the Polish diplomatic outpost. These records can be found among the accounting records of the Polish Bombay Consulate General, to the best of our knowledge, the only documentation from that Consulate which survived World War 2 (Poland. Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych, Hoover Institution, Stanford University).
We assume that the main body of the Consulate's documentation was destroyed by the Polish diplomats after the British government withdrew recognition of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London in 1945.
We don't know much about the fate of these men after April 1942, whether they returned to Europe or joined the Polish Army in the Middle East which left the Soviet territory after the summer of the same year.
Among the accounting records there are several "Certificates of Posting" from March 1942 about the heavy exchange of mail between the Polish diplomatic outposts in India and the Deputy Commissioner of Police Security Control in Calcutta and the Undersecretary to the Government of India Home Department in New Delhi. The content of this correspondence must have been destroyed.
Escapes of the Polish officers from Soviet Gulag
State Archives of the Russian Republic, (call number: GARF, f. 9401. op. 2, d. 173, l. 125-126), contain a report from November 1, 1945 by the commander of the 2-nd division of GUPVI NKVD SSSR , Major Bronnikov, who states that out of close to 100,000 Polish Army soldiers handled by the Soviet authorities between 1939 and 1941, approximately 1,082 Polish officers escaped from the camps.
Camp commanders frequently falsified reports on the circumstances of disappearance of the prisoners and even if the number wasn't this high, we can assume that several hundred must have attempted the escape. A small percentage of them survived the Siberian ordeal. There are numerous reports in the General Anders Papers stored at Stanford University confirming these escapes. Anders collected testimonies from Poles who successfully reached the gathering points for the deportees on Soviet territory before he took that remarkable Army to the Middle East in 1942.
What makes Bronnikov's report look reliable is that it officially admits to killing, by NKVD, 15,131 Polish officers. This fact remained a Soviet/Russian state secret until the mid 1990?s and the document couldn't be made public until the time of official inquiries about the Katyn Massacre.
So there is still a glimmer of hope that The Long Walk is more truth than fiction and that Slavomir Rawicz may indeed be telling the truth of an incredible ordeal whose minute details may be slighty out of focus by the minds defenses of self preservation.
Whatever the outcome of this ongoing drama, Slavomir Rawicz's post script to the 1997 edition of The Long Walk holds true -- freedom is very difficult to regain once it is lost. That is a good reminder to a generation who takes most material and immaterial things for granted. And Peter Weir's film, is a great depiction of this eternal battle for life and liberty.
I'm left wondering, what role does media and social communication afford in corrective or revisionist history and how this impacts on the tendency to fictionalize epic films so that the film itself is not discredited by boldly climing something is true. It is certainly much easier to hide in fiction. Kudos to directors and story tellers such as Peter Wier who attempt to preserve the heart of truth in stories that lift the spirit and challenge us by showing what we tend to under estimate what we are capable of in a single day.
This following interview with Anne Applebaum by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty touches on the need for all of us "to keep walking".
The film, starring Colin Farrell, is loosely based on a memoir by former Polish soldier Slawomir Rawicz, depicting his imprisonment in Siberia, escape, and subsequent 6,000 kilometer walk to freedom in India.
Journalist and writer Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book "Gulag: A History," served as a consultant on the project. She spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten about the movie.
RFE/RL: As a test, I did a search for "Holocaust films" on Google. As expected, the offerings were rich -- from Hollywood blockbusters like "Sophie's Choice" and "Schindler's List" to smaller gems like "Europa Europa." When I typed in "gulag films," Google didn't come up with much. Why this striking imbalance, in your opinion?
Anne Applebaum: I think the difference in the making of the films reflects a difference in cultural understanding of these two events. Until very recently, there were no [accessible] archives on the gulag, there was very little information about it. Only in recent years have historians begun to excavate the Soviet archives and produce really good descriptions of what happened. I think there is also a lack of understanding in the West. People talk about a "left wing bias" and how the left didn't want to talk about the gulag. But I think it's even more complicated than that.
The fact is that, certainly in the United States, Britain, and France, we have the sense that we won the war and we won the war in alliance with Russia, with the Soviet Union. Stalin was our ally and it's very difficult for us -- even now -- to think about Stalin also being a genocidal dictator and also somebody who committed crimes against humanity. Thus, people have been less enthusiastic about portraying [the gulag] in films and in novels.
RFE/RL: You served as a consultant on "The Way Back." Can you describe the degree of your involvement in the movie and are you satisfied with the final result?
Applebaum: My degree of involvement in the movie -- I don't want to overplay it. I had some contact with Peter Weir before he wrote the script. I sent him a copy of my book when I heard that he was looking at this subject. He and I had a number of phone conversations. He went to see some acquaintances of mine in Moscow, some gulag survivors. I helped him come up with a reading list. I've almost never worked with anybody who was so fanatical about historical detail. He wanted to know very specifically, what life was like. He wanted to be able to use incidents that he knew were real in the camps.
Among other things, as he began to make the film, he would make these phone calls and so the phone would ring at 11 o'clock at night and I would pick it up and it would be Peter Weir calling from Sydney. And he would say: "Anne, I just need to know: Would the guards who were guarding the prisoners on the train and bringing them to the camp be wearing the same uniforms as the guards who were standing at the camp or would they have been different uniforms?" And I was fortunately in a position to be able to tell him that they were different uniforms.
He used me as a kind of sounding board. I read the script a couple of times. I know that other people read the script as well. He sent it to another historian at Stanford and he sent it to a couple of the survivors whose names I'd given him. And I have to say I thought the result was superb. You know, there may be little licenses you have to take in order to convey to an audience that doesn't know the story, what's going on. Sometimes the guards say things they might not have said because they are explaining things to the audience. But given that he needed to do things like that, I think it's extraordinary. It's amazingly real. You understand exactly how claustrophobic it was.
Many of the incidents that you see in the movie come from real stories or come from [gulag survivor and writer Varlam] Shalamov or come from other gulag writers. I can see them almost exactly. I think it's an extremely well-done film and about as true-to-life as you could make a movie.
RFE/RL: You just mentioned Shalamov. There's quite a bit of source material from camp survivors who have written their memoirs based on their time in the gulag -- including those by Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, and many others. What makes Rawicz's account -- on which the movie is based -- so special?
Applebaum: I think Peter Weir was intrigued not only by Rawicz's account of the gulag but also by the account of his escape. The Rawicz book is really an adventure story. I actually gave it to my 13-year-old son to read and he thought it was great. It's a proper adventure. You don't know that it will come out well in the end. The prisoners leave the camp. They are in the middle of Siberia in the wilderness and they walk across Siberia and then across Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, and across the Himalayas into India and it's a classic journey in which there are different phases of it.
The characters learn things about one another on the trip. We learn more about them and about their history and in fact even about the gulag system and the Soviet system while they're walking. I think Peter Weir's always liked these battles of men against nature and these extraordinary feats of courage and I think that's what appealed to him about the book.
Although Rawicz himself was in the gulag, there are some doubts about whether he did that journey himself or whether he stole the idea from somebody else. But he's a very good writer and he makes it exciting. It's got a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's got a plot and I think that was what attracted Peter Weir and I can certainly understand why.
RFE/RL: I wanted to ask you about that. As you just said, there were doubts raised over key elements of Rawicz's story and whether it is all true -- whether it happened to him or whether he was released from the gulag, along with other Poles, in 1942. What were you able to determine?
Applebaum: I think, actually, it has been determined. He was released. He was in the gulag, he was let out with the Anders Army -- part of the Polish prisoners were let out in order to fight the Germans in 1941 and 1942 and he came out that way -- and there are actually records of him coming out. So I don't think there's any doubt that this is the case. His description of the gulag is certainly authentic. It seems what he did is that he heard about the walk that another group of prisoners did and he may even have seen an account of it that was written down for the Polish authorities in the 1940s and he seems to have taken that story and used it.
And there's some evidence -- both witnesses and there's one person who says he's a survivor of that actual walk. There are enough stories that it does seem like somebody did it, but it doesn't seem that Rawicz did it. But I think Peter Weir decided in the end he didn't care. He isn't calling it a true story. He says it's based on a true story and he's changed some details. It's not exactly like the book, the movie. He's changed the title, he's changed the main character's name. But I think he was inspired by the story because, as I say, it's extremely well-written, it's a rollicking adventure story and it's hard not to find it appealing. In fact, it was a best-seller in England in the 1950s.
RFE/RL: And in a sense, I guess the message is more important as is the authentic characterization of the gulag. What do you hope audiences will take away from the movie?
Applebaum: It's an exciting movie, so I hope people can enjoy it. I think they'll take away some understanding of what happened in the eastern half of Europe in the 1940s and the 1950s. I think they'll have a better sense of what being trapped in a camp, in the middle of nowhere, months' walk from anywhere else, actually meant. I think they'll have a better understanding of the politics and some sympathy for those kinds of characters.
The main character is a Pole but there's also a Russian, there's a Latvian, there's a Yugoslav character. At one point, they jokingly refer to themselves as a mini-UN. You get some sense of what happened in the region from what you learn about these people's lives, which I think is very valuable -- aside from the fact that it's just a cracking good movie.
RFE/RL: You've talked a lot about the Western audience but I guess there's also a message for the new generation in the East, which is also not very familiar with what went on in those days?
Applebaum: For the new generation in the East, it's a chance to see what life was like in their part of the world 50 years ago or 60 years ago. Why are things the way that they are in Russia? Why is life structured as it is in the former Soviet lands? This is part of the explanation. If you don't understand how we got to where we are [you can't understand the present].
History didn't begin 20 years ago when the Wall came down and communism collapsed. It starts earlier than that, and this movie is part of the key to understanding how things came to be the way they are in Eastern and Central Europe.
Peter Weir's film career has spread over five decades, earned him a total of six Oscar nominations, and has seen him work with big name stars Sigourney Weaver (The Year of Living Dangerously), Harrison Ford (Witness and The Mosquito Coast), Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society), Jeff Bridges (Fearless), Jim Carrey (The Truman Show), and Russell Crowe (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). His latest film, The Way Back, is one of his proudest achievements though. Peter Weir with Leonard Maltin at Telluride Film Festival: http://jimsturgessonline.com/?cat=257
Similar True Escape Stories
Cornelius Rost's 3 year 11,000 Km Journey: And As Far As My Fee With Carry Me
Heinrich Harrer's escape from a British POW camp in India to Tibet: Seven Years in TibetAntoni Ferdynand Ossendowski: St. Petersburg to China