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THE WAY BACK

About The Story
With a night time blizzard as cover, seven prisoners, caught up in Stalin's Reign of Terror, escape a Soviet Gulag in 1940. They are now free men and almost certainly, dead men…for their impending trek to safety defies any reasonable chance of success and the landscape they must cross is unforgiving.

With little food or equipment, and no certainty of their location or intended direction, they embark on a journey that will present unimaginable hardship and drama. Driven by base animal instincts—survival and fear—while relying on evolved human traits—compassion and trust—the group endures transformative experiences that are profound and abysmal, anguished and ecstatic. All the while, they abide by one unceasing mandate: keep moving, keep moving, keep moving…

Peter Weir says, "Our film is inspired by the Slavomir Rawicz novel, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, which I thought was a wonderful combination of a prison story and survival tale.

"We travel with our characters across four seasons, 12 months and some 10,000 kilometers, seeing how their behavior and personalities are affected by such harsh circumstances. Self-reliance is a requisite in the Gulag, but on this trek the men will have to depend on each other and break down the walls each has built around himself, if any are to make it through alive.”

As in such acclaimed films as Master and Commander, The Truman Show, Fearless and Gallipoli, Weir again places human nature under the microscope of duress. Ordinary people are subjected to extraordinary events and environments, forcing them to peel away facades and peer inside themselves.

Says producer Joni Levin, "Peter is wonderfully adept at using compelling narratives to examine human behavior. After many years of development, and continual hurdles on this project, it is thrilling and fortuitous that it wound up in the hands of the one director who can best tell the story.”

The narrative commences in the harsh confines of the Gulag before moving to the frozen forests of Siberia, the vast plains of Mongolia and the scorching torment of the Gobi Desert — the characters struggling against the elements and each other. Set against stunning geographical vistas, the plot centers around a young Polish outdoorsman, Janusz (Sturgess), whose keen survival skills will make him the fugitives' de facto leader.

An officer in the Polish cavalry, which was fighting the Nazis, Janusz is one of thousands of Polish solders imprisoned when the Soviet Red Army advanced into Poland from the east. Arrested as a spy for having come into contact with Germans, and for speaking English, Janusz is tortured, sentenced, and force-marched to Siberia. A signed statement from his wife, also extracted under torture, sealed his fate.

"Everyone in the group has his own reasons for wanting to escape, and my character's arrival sort of puts the final piece of the puzzle in place,” says Jim Sturgess. "Janusz is well-educated but he's also a woodsman who knows how to find his way through the forest. He believes escape is possible, and is absolutely determined to do so because he wants to get home to forgive his wife of the horrendous guilt he knows she's suffering. He must get free to free her.”

Janusz's accomplices include a taciturn American structural engineer, Mr. Smith, (Ed Harris) and a violently unpredictable Russian, Valka (Colin Farrell). Valka belongs to a vicious stratum of convicted street criminals, "Urki,” who are allowed to run the Gulags and intimidate the "political” inmates.

"The Gulag was a hierarchical society ruled by fear and intimidation,” says Farrell. "There was some form of ethics of the Urki's own design, but it was very harsh and violent. The guards lived in awful conditions, not much better than the prisoners. Paperwork was a nightmare. From their perspective, the more control they could bestow upon the Urki over certain elements of the system, the better.”

About his character, he adds, "Valka grew up an orphan on the streets and has been institutionalized for most of his life. He's quite capable of functioning within the Gulag. However, he has a penchant for playing cards, and, more problematic, losing at cards. So even though he is himself a dangerous man, he's increasingly consumed by fear of reprisal over his substantial debts.”

Overhearing plans of the escape, Valka offers the services of his knife as a "negotiating point” with Janusz, who agrees to let him join the breakout.

"A deal with the devil,” Mr. Smith judges.

An enigmatic and quiet man, Mr. Smith had traveled to Russia with his son to work on Moscow's metro system. Arrested in the night, he was sent to Siberia. Says Harris, "I hadn't been aware of this, but during the Great Depression, jobs in Russia were advertised in US newspapers. Thousands of Americans went there seeking work. When they arrived, the Russians would take their passports and require them to become Soviet citizens in order to be employed. When the purges started, they'd go for help to the American Embassy and be told, ‘Sorry, you gave up your citizenship, there's nothing we can do for you.' So they were stuck.” (Seven thousand Americans disappeared in the Gulags.)

"Enemies of the people” were typically sentenced to 10 to 25 years. The unfortunate Russian thespian Khabarov (Mark Strong) is given 10 years for "elevating the status of the old nobility” in a film role, anecdotally based on true accounts.

"I've had better notices,” Khabarov quips to new arrival Janusz, whom he immediately befriends and recruits as a potential participant in a breakout attempt. Utilizing his keen powers of observation, Khabarov surprises Janusz with an insightful summation of the Pole's circumstances, drawing him into his confidence.

"Khabarov harbors grand notions of escape, and entices Janusz into exploring the possibility, more so to feed off his energy and youthfulness than to entertain any real hope of getting out,” says Strong. "It's a fantasy he indulges in to distract from the unrelenting misery and hopelessness of his situation.”

Escape is indeed a fantasy. As the commandant informs the new inmates, "It is not our guns, our dogs or our wire that forms your prison. Siberia is your prison.”

Remote. Sizzling in summer, ferociously cold in winter. Prisoners had to build their own shelters and live on about 1,200 calories a day, says Keith Clarke - if they fulfilled their grueling work quota. Life expectancy: one year. The choice: perish among comrades in the Gulag or perish alone outside it.

Says Peter Weir, "Our characters, nearly all of whom are innocent of the charges for which they were sentenced, have been physically and mentally damaged even before arriving at the Gulag. Now they are on the run, coping with nature, and trying to avoid conflict with anyone in their path, knowing there is a bounty on their heads.”

That bounty, says Clarke, equaled the year's wages of a typical village resident. Often, all that was required as "proof” of capture to claim a reward was a hand or foot.

Along with Janusz, Valka and Mr. Smith, the escapees include the Poles Tamasz (Alexandru Potocean) and Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), the Latvian Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), and a cynically humorous Yugoslav, Zoran (Dragos Bucur).

The latter, an accountant by trade, has seemingly "the least likely chance of making it,” explains Bucur, "because he's not a physically strong man. However, he's been able to maintain a sense of humor as a survival tool. And he knows how to adapt. His comrades have greater reasons for getting home, reason

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