Their escape was just the beginning, in nine months they trekked over 4,000 miles through some of the harshest regions in the world.
Janusz, a young Polish cavalry officer is sentenced to 25 years in a Gulag forced labour camps in Siberia, for refusing admit he is an anti-communist spy, after the Russians extort a fraudulent statement from his wife.
Determined to escape Janusz teams up with a cynical American Mr Smith, a hardened Russian criminal Valka, Polish artist Tomasz, a Latvian priest Voss, a Polish pastry chef Kazik (suffering from night blindness), and a Yugoslav accountant Zoran. They plan to break out during a severe snowstorm to cover their tracks, with little food or equipment, and no certainty of their location or intended direction, apart from trekking south to Mongolia.
During a second night Kazik freezes to death after losing his way and is buried but the group. After many days of travel across the snows and steppes of Siberia and at their limits, they reach Lake Baikal and its mosquitoes. They encounter a Polish girl Irena (who conceals a tragic experience), and who is grudgingly allowed to join their quest. Reaching the unpatrolled border between Russia and Mongolia, Valka chooses to remain, as he still sees Russia as his homeland, and Stalin as a hero. The rest continue but find that Mongolia is now also a Communist state, and that India is the closest refuge. They continue south, crossing the Gobi Desert, suffering from a lack of water, sandstorms, and sun stroke which weakens and tests the group.
The film goes further than the book (which finishes in 1942) and brings the story full-circle.
Based on the book ‘The long walk : the true story of a trek to freedom’ by Slavomir Rawicz, the film version ‘The way back’ is directed by Australian great Peter Weir who has done a superb job with the prison camp and the landscapes.