The Way Back: Hollywood Discovers the Gulags

January 26, 2011

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The Way Back: Hollywood Discovers the Gulags

To be Oscar-eligible, a movie had to have played for one week last year in Southern California. Last Christmas, I had looked forward to heading down to the ArcLight on Sunset Boulevard to a see The Way Back, a modest epic about an escape from a 1940s concentration camp. It’s the first film since 2003’s outstanding Master and Commander (which starred Russell Crowe as sea novelist Patrick O’Brian’s Captain Jack Aubrey) by distinguished director Peter Weir (Gallipoli, Witness, The Truman Show), the leading figure in Australian cinema’s emergence back in the 1970s.

But The Way Back’s Oscar-qualifying run was not at the ArcLight Hollywood but at the AMC Covina 30. (I’m not sure where Covina is, other than that it is east, presumably, of West Covina.)

Now that The Way Back is finally out in a semi-national release on 678 screens, it turns out that its heroes were the wrong kind of 1940s political prisoners: A Polish Army officer leads six anti-communist escapees out of a Soviet Gulag in frigid Siberia (which will give you a new, favorable impression of global warming) across Mongolia and Tibet and over the Himalayas to India.

“The truth is that a vast number of survivors walked home from Soviet camps in the 1940s and 1950s, including a distant in-law of mine.”

The well-trod ground of Nazism (1933-1945) automatically accords movies attention as “important,” while films about the fresher, broader topic of communism (1917-1991) must overcome the widespread attitude of “Why do we have to think about that?” Exceptional films such as The Lives of Others can overcome this aversion. For merely strong ones, such as The Way Back, Katyn, or last summer’s Farewell, popularity will always lie at the end of a hard road.

Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History and a consultant on The Way Back, notes: “Weir told me that many in Hollywood were surprised by the story: They’d never heard of Soviet concentration camps, only German ones.” You can see how much Weir had to scrounge for his $30-million budget during the interminable opening display of animated logos for the seven obscure production companies that chipped in, including National Geographic Films, the Polish Film Institute, and Imagenation Abu Dhabi. 

English actor Jim Sturgess is winning as the zek fugitives’ Slavic Eagle Scout leader. Ed Harris portrays a disillusioned Finnish-American engineer who had emigrated to Moscow to be a New Soviet Man. Colin Farrell, who was a little too simian-looking to make it as a leading man, is becoming a hugely entertaining character actor. He plays a comic Russian gangster with patriotic portraits of Lenin and Stalin tattooed on his chest. When the survivors finally reach the border, he hands his invaluable switchblade over to the political prisoners and turns back to his fate in Russia. He is a homeboy for life. 

Weir’s fundraising wasn’t helped by a 2006 BBC report casting fresh doubts on the veracity of one inspiration for his movie, the 1956 bestseller The Long Walk by Polish veteran Slawomir Rawicz. The book has always had skeptics. Eric Shipton, the famed mountaineer and British diplomat in Central Asia, doubted Rawicz’s claim to have seen two yetis. (The Way Back, which, when it errs, errs toward tastefulness, has no Abominable Snowmen.)

The BBC discovered that rather than escape in 1941, Rawicz had instead been released in Stalin’s 1942 general amnesty of his Polish captives to win Polish support against Germany. Many of the freed Poles tramped thousands of miles to Iran’s British sector.

The truth is that a vast number of survivors walked home from Soviet camps in the 1940s and 1950s, including a distant in-law of mine. He had been an Italian soldier posted to fight General Patton’s invading American army. When Mussolini was overthrown, peace was declared and he deserted. But the occupying Germans rounded him up and sent him to the Eastern Front, where the Soviets captured him. When the war ended, the camp commandant opened the gate and gestured in Italy’s general direction. It took him two years to trudge home.

Perhaps Rawicz and his Daily Mail ghostwriter added elements from several other sources. An English official in India did meet three emaciated Poles staggering down from Tibet.

Also, in 1952 Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer hit the bestseller lists with his memoir Seven Years in Tibet. He had made the reverse journey, escaping internment in British India for refuge in neutral Lhasa, where he became the tutor of the current Dalai Lama. (Brad Pitt played Harrer in the 1997 film.)

Finally, the Polish author and adventurer Ferdynand Ossendowski had escaped Bolshevism by trying to walk from Siberia to India. He wound up as spymaster for the khan of Mongolia in 1920-21, Baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg, a brutal Buddhist Czarist who, like the villain in Iron Man, planned to restore Genghis Khan’s empire.

Now there’s a source story!


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