Many years ago I travelled by train along a stretch of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Novosibirsk to Irkutsk on the southern shore of Lake Baykal not long after reading Slavomir Rawicz's book "The Long Walk" and I vividly remember that Siberia was a region of endless space, where there were no signs of human habitation for hours on end and vast dense pine forests stretched from horizon to horizon for hundreds of miles. I tried to picture what it must have been like for a small party of people with hardly any food or suitable clothing walking across this region for months on end in the middle of winter in temperatures up to minus 20 degrees below zero and then walking through the scorching heat of the Gobi Desert and climbing over the huge mountains of the Himalayas. It is scarcely comprehensible that a few men did manage to escape like this from the Russian Gulag's and reach freedom.
Peter Weir's magnificent, enthralling and moving film tells the story of a group of prisoners from a Russian concentration camp north of Lake Baykal who escaped and walked south for 4,000 miles across Siberia, Mongolia, China and Tibet and the survivors of the journey eventually reached India. Rawicz's account of his escape has been questioned but there is no doubt that a few Poles and others did manage to escape and reach freedom in this way and some Poles joined up with free Polish forces and fought against the German's who ironically were fighting the Russians who had invaded Poland shortly after Hitler in September 1939. It was these same Russians who had condemned thousands of Poles and others to long stretches in the Gulag's on trumped up charges and when the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, it suited the Russians to release many Poles from the camps to fight the Nazis.
Poland got precious little from being victors in the second world war. They were the first country to be invaded by the Germans, they were stabbed in the back by the Russians soon afterwards, the conditions in occupied Poland especially for the Jews were horrendous, over 4,000 Polish officers were slaughtered by the Russian KGB who tried to blame the Germans for the crime, the ever loyal Poles were ignored or treated with contempt by their American and British allies and the Russians refused to help the Polish resistance fighters during the Warsaw Rising in 1944. They were promised free elections after the war but the Russians had no intention of honouring this promise and Poland became a satelitte state of the Russian empire for decades to come. It is only now that they are enjoying the belated freedom and democracy that they so richly deserved.
Weir made the film by using Bulgaria as the setting for Siberia and Morocco as the setting for Mongolia and he laudably showed great respect towards those Poles that he and members of the cast met who were in Russian prison camps or were relatives of such people by taking great care to accurately reconstruct conditions in the camps and to be as truthful as possible in the circumstances.
The scenery is breathtaking and the exterior photography is superb. Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris in the main roles are particularly impressive and the whole production is brilliantly staged and the story stays in the memory for a long time afterwards.