Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Long Walk & The Way Back

I've just finished the memoir The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz which has been adapted into The Way Back by Peter Weir.

Here are some of my thoughts on the book as well as how reading this impacts my thoughts on the adaptation. I will avoid excessive spoilers, but some basic premise's of Rawicz' life and this story are inevitable. So be warned.

The Long Walk

The Long Walk is a story by Slavomir Rawicz (ghost written by Ronald Downing) which chronicalizes an epic, tragic, and heroic story that begins with Rawicz, a Polish soldier, captured and imprisoned during WWII by the Russian's on charges of espionage. These charges came as a result of his ability to speak Russian, and through horrific means the USSR men forced a confession.

In all honesty, this part of the story while important and sad, is the least interesting, because it's only the set up for the journey that begins when he's finally charged and sent to travel by train across Russia to Irkutsk in Siberia. Then alongside other prisoners they were forced to take a walk to a prison camp much further north into the desolate reaches of the Soviet Republic where they worked in a labor camp on meager rations.

It is here in the story that it get's interesting, because this puts us in a time when Rawicz gathers other men within the camp for a calculated escape. Rawicz and 6 other men make an escape.

These men make a determination to head South, and the remainder of the book tells the story of their journey which includes a challenging trek through the Siberia, avoiding all contact with any possible, fearful to even make a fire due to the fear of recapture. From Siberia they head encounter Mongols, Chinese, Tibetans, and live off unprecedented survival skills, the hospitality of villagers, and some impressive endurance.

Besides the impressive endurance required to escape Siberia, they also travel through the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas. It is particularly the passage through the Gobi Desert that is incredibly interesting and incredible.

This title is no hyperbole, as the walk, is a long one, that spans over 4000 miles and over 12 months. It's an impressive journey that is absolutely jaw dropping and amazing.

Would I recommend this book, most absolutely, it's a pretty incredible story.

The Reality/Historic Record/The Feeling at the End
(This section contains spoilers)

The end of this book, like many memoirs and true stories leaves you with some questions. And a little research will lead to some disappointments.

Questions you ask are things like what happened to the survivors of this journey? Did they ever meet again? Basic questions of that nature.

In doing some very basic research you discover that many believe, based on historical records of the Polish Army, that Rawicz is recorded to have been allowed to leave the labor camp in 1942 and upon his return left for Iran. Perhaps this is inaccurate, but the banality of this data compared with the incredible and awe inspiring story that are held in the pages of this book certainly creates some doubt.

Of course, that seems like modern skepticism to doubt, but the fact that only Rawicz has come forward of the other characters mentioned in this story heightens my skepticism more than anything else. Instead these people are enigmas, that never really existed, or perhaps were based on acquaintances at the prison camp.

In many ways this stinks of other fictitious memoirs I've discussed on this blog including the very similar lie Angel at the Fence and the well publicized fiction of A Million Little Pieces.

It's possible that The Long Walk would have made an excellent novel, but the power of "based on a real story" certainly makes things seem more powerful. But once holes are blown into the reality of the story, it sort of ruins the whole feeling you have about a book.

That being said, it's an incredibly captivating story, and could still be very enjoyable historical adventure novel.

The Way Back

Based on the controversy of the historical record, I think Weir was wise to re-title this something different from the book and give the characters new names. This forces the story into a fictional retelling (not to mention moves it a way from the title of Nelson Mandela's memoir and A Stephen King novel).

Jim Sturgess appears to be playing the Rawicz character who hear is named Janusz. This is a really great character, and I think Jim Sturgess has an excellent chance to give himself some powerful credibility with a powerful performance in this role.

This film also stars Colin Farrell, who's performances are consistently inconsistent. So I'm hopeful that Farrell does not disappoint.

Two of my favorite characters from the story is a character named Mr. Smith and a young lady name Kristina.

In the film, it would appear very clearly that Ed Harris is playing this "Mr. Smith" character, who's name happens to be in the film...Mr. Smith. This character is an older (but not old) member of the bunch who is an American prisoner convicted by the Russians. Mr. Smith has a unique type of silent authority in the group, and I think Harris is a fantastic casting choice.

Kristina in the story is a young woman who is also a refuge in the Siberian wilderness who become a member of the band of prison escapes. Although they are very skeptical of her joining their band when they encounter her, the bond that forms in the story with her very touching and moving. This character appears to be translated into a character named Irena who will be played by the young Oscar nominated actress Saoirse Ronan. I think this is another exceptional casting decision, and am interested to see Ronan take on this unique and challenging role.

This film really has a great opportunity to stand out as a gem of the film season, and I am certainly interested in seeing it, and hope it lives up to my personal expectations for this film.

Photo credits:
Ed Harris and Colin Farrell image top of post from
Daemon's Movies. The image of the book comes from a post with a very positive review on Confessions of A Writer.


Anonymous said...

'premises', plural, doesn't have an apostrophe

Anonymous said...

The most recent information makes it seem that this story is true - it simply doesn't belong to Rawicz. They think that the "ghost writer" of the book took a record of a real Polish man who DID take this journey, and used documentation of the whole journey to write the book. He used Rawicz as the subject.

This still means that there is some deception in the book, which is frustrating. But I'm encouraged to know that the core survival story of the book is indeed true.

Clyde said...

Eighteen years on,from 1988, to find the star character in the most amazing story I ever read, was a liar was so depressing. I listened to that Radio 4 programme 7 years ago. Then I discover Glinski and I'm just hoping that this now dead old guy who impressed the reporters, was telling the truth. But I was so let down by Rawicz. That story was part of my life, one of the best.

kathat0 said...

I believe him and I always will.