The film is inspired by the memoir of Slavomir Rawicz depicting his escape from a Siberian gulag and subsequent 4000-mile walk to freedom in India. Incredibly popular, it sold over 500,000 copies and is credited with inspiring many explorers. However, in 2006 the BBC unearthed records (including some written by Rawicz himself) that showed he had been released by the USSR in 1942. In 2009 another former Polish soldier, Witold Glinski, claimed that the book was really an account of his own escape. However this claim too has been seriously challenged.
When Janusz and the others spot the tattoo of Lenin and Stalin on Valka's chest, he angrily replies that they were great men. Such tattoos were in fact employed by criminals in the false hope that they wouldn't be shot there as it was supposed to be illegal to deface an image of either Lenin or Stalin; although it is well-known that the executions were conducted via shooting in the back of the head.
Renowned historian Anne Applebaum, who won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction for "GULAG: A history"(2003), worked as a historical consultant on this movie. She said about the historical accuracy: "I read the script a couple of times. I know that other people read the script as well. He [director and co-writer Peter Weir] sent it to another historian at Stanford and he sent it to a couple of the survivors whose names I'd given him. And I have to say I thought the result was superb. You know, there may be little licenses you have to take in order to convey to an audience that doesn't know the story, what's going on. Sometimes the guards say things they might not have said because they are explaining things to the audience. But given that he needed to do things like that, I think it's extraordinary. It's amazingly real. You understand exactly how claustrophobic it was. Many of the incidents that you see in the movie come from real stories or come from gulag survivor and writer Varlam Shalamov or come from other gulag writers. I can see them almost exactly. I think it's an extremely well-done film and about as true-to-life as you could make a movie."
In the film's end credits it says, that The Way Back (2010) was only "inspired" by Slavomir Rawicz's book "The Long Walk"(1955), not "based" on it. The film never claims to be a 'true story', but rather to be informed by historical research. Peter Weir only took the basic storyline of Rawicz' popular book, but changed the names and added other characters and events based on historical sources. The central character doesn't represent the real-life Rawicz, therefore his name was changed to 'Janusz Wieszczeck'. The character 'Valka', played by Colin Farrell, is not in Rawicz' book at all.
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."
Director and co-writer Peter Weir included the experiences of French adventurer Cyril Delafosse-Guiramand, who did the walk described in Slavomir Rawicz's book. He became a technical advisor for the film production. Peter Weir recollected: "...Cyril Delafosse-Guiramand, late 30s, French. He works in the IT industry but his hobby is walking. He was inspired by the book and sometime after 2000 he undertook the walk, so he was the first person I went to see. He was living in Laos then with his wife. So I went up there and we talked for a couple of days and I said, 'Would you advise us? I'll send you scripts.' Then I began to say, 'Can I put some of the stuff you're telling me in, like this thing about these mosquitoes? This man you met in the forest that has a bark necklace?' He said, 'Sure,' very generously so I put that in.. Then he coached the actors and then was with us every day."
The film begins with the following statement: "In 1941 three men walked out of the Himalayas into India. They had survived a 4000 mile walk to freedom. This film is dedicated to them." This is accurate and based on historical evidence, but those 3 men were not Slavomir Rawicz or others from his largely fictitious escape story. The BBC reported in 2010: "We learned of a British intelligence officer who said he had interviewed a group of haggard men in Calcutta in 1942 - a group of men who had escaped from Siberia and then walked all the way to India. And then from New Zealand came news of a Polish engineer who had apparently acted as an interpreter for this very same interview in Calcutta with the wretched survivors. These stories are second-hand, and far from conclusive proof, but for Mr Weir [director Peter Weir], they convinced him that there was an essential truth in the story that he wanted to retain: 'There was enough for me to say that three men had come out of the Himalayas, and that's how I dedicate my film, to these unknown survivors. And then I proceed with essentially a fictional film.' This is why the film has a new title, 'The Way Back', and why the central character is not called Slavomir Rawicz."