In 1941, three men reach India from Tibet, having walked 4000 miles after escaping a Siberian gulag. The film tells their story and that of four others who escaped with them and a teenage girl who joins them in flight. The group's natural leader is Janusz, a Pole condemned by accusations secured by torturing his wife; he knows how to live in the wilds. They escape under cover of a snowstorm: a cynical American, a Russian thug, a comic accountant, a pastry chef who draws, a priest, and a Pole with night blindness. They face freezing nights, lack of food and water, mosquitoes, an endless desert, the Himalayas, and moral questions of when to leave someone behind. Written by
Early in the film, as the prisoners are marched up to the front gate of the Gulag prison camp, a slogan written in Russian Cyrillic letters is seen over that gate. It is a slightly shortened variation of a famous propaganda slogan from Communist-era Soviet Union, which translates approximately to "Labor in the USSR is a matter of honour, a matter of valour and heroism." See more »
Janusz demonstrates a method using shadows of a stick and rock to find the compass direction of south. Yet, many of the scenes show them walking in a direction inconsistent with sun angles i.e. sun at their backs, which would have them walking north. See more »
The story of a small group of people escaping from a Siberian Soviet prison, part of the "Gulag" in wartime and walking 4000 miles to freedom looked a trifle grim in the trailer, but Peter Weir has managed to produce a rather beautiful film out of it, using Bulgaria and Morocco as locales rather than Siberia and the Gobi desert. Only Darjeeling in India plays itself. My only trouble with it is the rather uneven character development. The story lends itself to ensemble playing but we learn little about two or three of the walkers. In the case of the lead character Janusz (Jim Sturgess) who is the source of the story this is explicable as we are seeing the others though his eyes, but it has to be said that both "Mr Smith" (the excellent Ed Harris) and the Girl (Saiorse Ronan) leave a lasting impression.
I know there is some doubt as to the authenticity of the story, taken from a 1955 book by Slavimir Rawicz a former Polish army officer, and indeed what the group are supposed to have done looks impossible but that's not a problem, because the relationships ring true. It is remarkable how an almost random collection of individuals, including one with a very unsavoury past, can, driven by sheer necessity, wind up functioning as a team. Partly this is due to the leader actually having some navigational knowledge and therefore inspiring confidence in the others. Mr Smith remarks early on that the Janusz has a serious weakness; he is kind, but when the chips are down we see that even the hard-bitten Mr Smith is capable of compassion.
Strangely enough, after the initial scenes in the prison camp, and the escape, there is not a lot of drama. The group encounter very few people on their travels and those they do meet take little interest in them (perhaps they had not heard about the bounty for escapees). Obtaining food and water is obviously a big issue, so mind out for the messy hunting scenes. I was astounded at how well their footwear stood up to the punishment; my hiking boots are not good for 400 miles let alone 4000. Actually they must have wandered around a bit - the northern end of Lake Baikal and Lhasa in Tibet are about 1800 miles apart, though the prison camp was somewhere north of the lake. It's also not clear how long the walk took, but at times it seemed like years. Weir's great achievement is to keep us watching a very drawn out tale. Personally I think I would have died of boredom if I had been in this particular walk, if starvation hadn't got me first.
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