The Way Back, a new drama from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World director Peter Weir, is a sprawling epic with a very personal focus. Set against the backdrop of war, inhumanity and an almost insurmountable challenge, it is about that most personal of things, survival.
Based on a controversial memoir written by Slavomir Rawicz, the film begins with Polish solider Janusz (Jim Sturgess) sent to a hellish Siberian gulag in 1941 on trumped up charges. Sentenced to ten years—a term he knows he won’t survive—he and a group of prisoners, including a grizzled American soldier (Ed Harris) and a violent Russian criminal (Colin Farrell) make a break for it. Their goal? Freedom. The obstacle? A 4000 kilometer walk through the harsh terrain of Mongolia, China and Tibet on the way to India and a new life. Along the way they pick up one more traveler, a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) whose camaraderie helps bond the ragtag band of escapees.
“The book was published in 1956 and called The Long Walk by Sławomir Rawicz,” Peter Weir said on a recent stop in Toronto to promote the movie. “There is no question from documents that later appeared after the fall of the Soviet Empire when KGB documents were briefly available, that yes, Rawicz had been in a gulag. But did he go on the walk or not? Question mark.
“So the first thing I said was, ‘I can’t do a true story called The Long Walk, but I can fictionalize it based on, or inspired by the book and based on true events if I can prove the walk actually happened.’ We got that proof and I felt comfortable going around the Rawicz question and not saying it’s his personal story.”
To add detail to his fictionalized tale Weir says he became deeply immersed in the subject.
“I became somewhat obsessed with it I think, even though I was fictionalizing it,” he says. “[I learned] through deep background reading, through accounts of those who had gone through the situation in one form or another, including Polish prisoners and soldiers who had been caught up, rather like my central character. I then interviewed survivors in Moscow and Siberia and in London and I just crammed as much as I could into the screenplay.”
Weir says that while he strove for absolute authenticity in the film, he had to temper the depiction of life in the gulag for the big screen.
“I did restrain myself from what I was finding in research. Obviously in the worst situations there was a commandant who was a sadist and there were, to a degree, worse situations. So I chose something that I felt was reasonably representative of a number of these hundreds of camps and gulags.”
At the heart of the film is Jim Sturgess as Janusz, the determined and kind-hearted leader of the escapees.
“I’d seen Jim Sturgess for the first time in Across the Universe and thought how well cast he was as a young Beatle as it were,” says Weir. “He has that kind of guilelessness and openness that I needed for my character.
“He’s one to watch. In my film firstly,” he laughs, “and in whatever else is coming up for him.”