To escape from a Soviet gulag in 1941 and walk across Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi desert, the Himalayas, to British-controlled India, a distance of four thousand miles, is an impossible feat. Yet there is evidence that a group of prisoners did just that. Slavomir Rawicz recounts the story in his memoir, “The Long Walk,” published in 1956. An instant best seller, the book tells the story of a Polish cavalry officer, Janusz, captured by the Russians, tortured, and sentenced to 25 years hard labor in a prison camp in Siberia.
Janusz is chained to a group of convicts and marched to a Siberian prison from which there is no escape. But escape he does, with six other men. A blinding snowstorm gives them cover, but once free of the camp, in desperate need of food, clothing, and shelter, they face the sheer impossibility of what they are attempting to do. Only the knowledge that they cannot go back, and the goal of freedom, keep them going. On their first night one of the men, Kazik, goes off in search of firewood and freezes to death. They take comfort in the fact that he died a free man.
Peter Weir produced a film version of the story entitled “The Way Back.” Using actual film footage from Soviet archives, he shows starving prisoners fighting for garbage, playing cards for each others’ few belongings, burying their clothes in snow to kill the lice.
No one has ever walked through Mongolia, yet these men do it, doggedly putting one foot after the other. They must leave no mark of their passing, for fear of being captured and sent back. Yet their need for clothing and food is constant. At one point they fight off a group of wolves for the carcass of an animal.
In the Gobi desert they battle sandstorms, sunstroke, and dehydration, supporting those who falter, always moving southward toward freedom. Ed Harris is the American subway worker caught in the Great Terror of 1937, Colin Ferrell a Russian thug. There’s an an accountant, a pastry chef/sketch artist, and a priest. A girl named Irene joins them for a time.
Not all of the remaining six make it to India. But some do.
The film is different from the book, as you might expect. Each has its own strengths, its own unforgettable scenes, its own moral dilemmas. Both book and film portray characters pushed to the limits of human endurance, yet they never lose their courage nor their determination. Read the book or listen to it on CD, then stream, rent, or buy the DVD. It’s a great story.