January 26, 2011

Ed Harris and Colin Farrell in <i>The Way Back</i>

Ed Harris and Colin Farrell in The Way Back

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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