The Way Back

The Way Back

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Peter Weir
Produced by Peter Weir
Joni Levin
Duncan Henderson
Nigel Sinclair
Scott Rudin
Screenplay by Peter Weir
Keith Clarke
Based on The Long Walk
by Sławomir Rawicz
Starring Jim Sturgess
Ed Harris
Saoirse Ronan
Colin Farrell
Music by Burkhard Dallwitz
Cinematography Russell Boyd
Edited by Lee Smith
Distributed by Newmarket Films
Exclusive Film Distribution
Meteor Pictures
Release dates
  • September 3, 2010 (2010-09-03) (Telluride Film Festival)
  • December 29, 2010 (2010-12-29) (United States)
Running time
133 minutes
Language English
Budget $30 million[1]
Box office $20,348,249[1]

The Way Back is a 2010 survival drama film directed by Peter Weir, from a screenplay by Weir and Keith Clarke. The film is inspired by The Long Walk (1956), the memoir by former Polish prisoner of war Sławomir Rawicz who escaped from a Soviet Gulag and walked 4,000 miles to freedom in World War II. The film stars Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, and Saoirse Ronan, with Alexandru Potocean, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgård, Dragoş Bucur, and Mark Strong.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup.


During World War II, after the Soviet invasion of Poland, young Polish military officer Janusz Wieszczek (Jim Sturgess) is held as a POW and interrogated by the NKVD. The Soviets, unable to get him to say he is a spy, take into custody his wife from whom they extort a statement condemning him. He is sentenced to 20 years in a Gulag labour camp deep in Siberia.

There Janusz meets those with whom he later plans an escape: Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an American engineer; Khabarov (Mark Strong), an actor; Valka (Colin Farrell), a hardened Russian criminal; Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), a Polish artist; Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), a Latvian priest; Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a Pole suffering from night blindness; and Zoran (Dragoş Bucur), a Yugoslavian accountant. Khabarov secretly tells Janusz that he is planning to escape south to Mongolia, passing Lake Baikal. Mr. Smith cautions Janusz that it is Khabarov's way to discuss escape plans with newcomers, to maintain his morale, but nothing will come of it. At times Janusz seems to hallucinate the front door of a country home and adjoining window ledge, which holds plants and a rock he attempts to reach for. Janusz follows through with the escape with Mr. Smith, Valka, Voss, Tomasz, Zoran, and Kazik during a severe snowstorm that covers their tracks.

Kazik freezes to death the second night of the trek, after losing his way back to the campsite while looking for wood, and the group buries him. After many days of travelling across the snows of Siberia, the group reaches Lake Baikal. There they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish girl, who tells them that Russian soldiers murdered her parents, sent her to a collective farm near Warsaw, where they treated her cruelly, so she escaped. Mr. Smith realises the inaccuracies in her story, as Warsaw is occupied by the Germans; nevertheless, despite his misgivings that she'll slow them down and tax their meager food supply, he agrees with the group to let her in. Mr. Smith eventually cautions her about the lie and says he will not tolerate any more, in response to which she admits that her parents were communists but the communist rulers killed them anyway and sent her to an orphanage.

When the group reaches an unpatrolled border between the Soviet Union and Mongolia, Valka, who idolizes Stalin and does not know what he would do elsewhere, decides to stay. The rest continue to Ulan Bator, but soon they see images of Stalin and a red star. Janusz realises that Mongolia is under communist control and tells the group they should take refuge in British India. As they continue south across the Gobi Desert, lack of water, sandstorms, sunburn, blisters, and sunstroke weaken the group. Irena collapses several times and soon dies. A few days later, Tomasz collapses and dies. Mr. Smith is on the verge of death, but after being motivated by Janusz, Zoran, and Voss, he decides to rejoin the group, and the severely dehydrated four find a much-needed water source.

As they reach the Himalayas, all of them on the verge of death, they are rescued by a Tibetan monk who takes them to a Buddhist monastery, where they regain their strength. Mr. Smith decides to go to Lhasa with the help of one of the monk's contacts, who will smuggle him out through China. Once there, he anticipates he will be able to connect with the US military; his return to America ensured. The remaining three continue to trek through the Himalayas and soon reach India.

At the end of the film, Janusz keeps walking around the world until 1989, when Poland ousts the communists. The final scene of the film shows Janusz, 50 years after being taken captive, again envisioning the door and reaching for the rock; this time he takes a key hidden beneath the rock to open the door and reconcile with his wife.




The film is loosely based on The Long Walk (1955), Sławomir Rawicz's memoir depicting his alleged escape from a Siberian Gulag and subsequent 4,000-mile walk to freedom in Nepal.The book sold over 500,000 copies and is credited with inspiring many explorers. In 2006, the BBC unearthed records (including some written by Rawicz himself) which showed that, rather than having escaped from the gulag, he had in fact been released by the USSR in 1942.[2][3] In May 2009, Witold Gliński, a Polish World War II veteran living in the United Kingdom, came forward to claim that the basis of Rawicz's story was true, but it was actually an account of what had happened to him, not Rawicz. Glinski's claims have also been seriously questioned.[4][5][6][7] In addition, in 1942, a group of Siberian Gulag escapees is said to have hiked into Nepal.[2] However, this too is suspect.[4][8][9] Though the director Peter Weir continues to claim that the so-called long walk happened, he himself now describes The Way Back as "essentially a fictional film".[2][10][11]

Regardless of whether or not this particular "long walk" really took place, during World War II other Poles undertook difficult journeys attempting to leave the Soviet Union. Accounts of their escapes can be found in the archives of the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London, and in the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, in California.[12] Also, several relatively verifiable and believable escapee autobiographies have been published in English, e.g., Michael Krupa's Shallow Graves in Siberia.

Many of the events that happen in the gulag scenes come from Varlam Shalamov's The Kolyma Tales, such as the scene where the man is killed for his sweater.

Laurence Harvey and Herbert Wilcox announced plans to make a film from The Long Walk in 1957.[13]


Principal photography took place in Bulgaria, Morocco, and India.


The Way Back received generally positive reviews. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 74% of critics gave the film a positive review based on 129 reviews, with an average score of 6.8 out of 10. The critical consensus is: "It isn't as emotionally involving as it should be, but this Peter Weir epic offers sweeping ambition and strong performances to go with its grand visual spectacle."[14] Empire awarded the film three out of five stars and said, "It's good, but from this director we have come to expect great."[15] The Guardian awarded it three out of five and said, "Weir has put together a good film – oddly, though, considering its scale, it feels like a rather small one."[16] The Telegraph called the film "A journey that feels awful and heroic and unfathomable – and one you’ll want to watch again."[17]


The soundtrack to The Way Back was released on January 18, 2010.[18]

No. TitleArtist Length
1. "Interrogation"  Burkhard Dallwitz 3:36
2. "New Arrivals"  Burkhard Dallwitz 1:16
3. "Plans for Escape"  Burkhard Dallwitz 1:58
4. "A Brave Man"  Burkhard Dallwitz 1:00
5. "Escape"  Burkhard Dallwitz 2:48
6. "Lake Baikal"  Burkhard Dallwitz 3:35
7. "Freedom?"  Burkhard Dallwitz 3:02
8. "Mirages Don't Have Birds"  Burkhard Dallwitz 2:34
9. "The Abandoned Temple"  Burkhard Dallwitz 1:17
10. "Water!"  Burkhard Dallwitz 3:36
11. "Tibet"  Burkhard Dallwitz 5:26
12. "India"  Burkhard Dallwitz 1:58
13. "Keep on Walking"  Burkhard Dallwitz 2:42
14. "Closing Credits"  Burkhard Dallwitz 7:39
Total length:

See also


  1. 1 2 "The Way Back (2011)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2012-02-27.
  2. 1 2 3 "How The Long Walk became The Way Back". BBC. Retrieved 2010-12-05.
  3. Levinson, Hugh (2006-10-30). "Walking the Talk?". BBC. Retrieved 7 August 2011.
  4. 1 2 Strandberg et al, "The Long Walk To Freedom" Retrieved 2010-12-31.
  5. Leszek Gliniecki, "I have proof Glinski didn’t do The Long Walk" Retrieved 2011-01-04. Gliniecki claims that he and Glinski were fellow students in Russia in 1940 and 1941. His article offers testimony, contemporary documents, and an analysis of the Glinski story as reported by John Dyson in the May 2009 Reader's Digest, and Linda Willis in her November 2010 book Looking For Mr. Smith.
  6. John Dyson, "Regarding Gliniecki´s solid evidence" Retrieved 2011-01-21. In addition to John Dyson's response to Gliniecki, this webpage also has two posts from CuChullaine O'Reilly and Leszek Gliniecki replying to Dyson, as well as a post from Linda Willis in which she acknowledges knowing nothing about Gliniecki.
  7. Leszek Gliniecki, "Thank you for allowing me to comment on Zbigniew L. Stanczyk’s submission". Retrieved 2011-02-05. Gliniecki offers further details rebutting Glinski's story.
  8. Zbigniew Stanczyk, "Mysterious group of Polish escapees in India". Retrieved 2011-02-05. On 4 February 2011, Zbigniew Stanczyk described newly discovered evidence which may confirm the presence of Polish gulag escapees in western India in March 1942.
  9. Att fly från Gulag – eller fängslas av kalla krigets myter?.
  10. Peter Weir 16 February 2011 Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview, part 1 on YouTube Retrieved 2011-02-19.
  11. Peter Weir February 16, 2011 Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview, part 2 on YouTube Retrieved 2011-02-19.
  12. Zbigniew Stanczyk, "Mysterious group of Polish escapees in India". Retrieved 2011-02-05. Specific references or citations are needed to support this assertion.
  13. Harvey Will Produce 'Long Walk;' Hayden Top Star in 'Hard as Nails' Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 15 July 1957: C9.
  14. "The Way Back Movie Reviews, Pictures". Flixster. Retrieved 2011-01-05.
  15. "Empire's The Way Back Movie Review". Retrieved 2012-02-27.
  16. Bradshaw, Peter (2010-12-24). "The Way Back – review". The Guardian. London.
  17. Sandhu, Sukhdev (2010-12-23). "The Way Back, review". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  18. "The Way Back Soundtrack". TheOST. 2010. Retrieved January 6, 2014.

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