The tale of a 4,000-mile journey from Siberia to India, "The Way Back" is based on Slavomir Rawicz's 1956 memoir "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom" and begins with a dedication to three men who survived the ordeal. Three, however, is not the number depicted in the movie. And there's another question about the one who wrote the book.
After Rawicz's death in 2004, his story was effectively debunked as fiction based on the experiences of others, specifically a Polish gulag survivor named Witold Glinski who stepped forward in 2009. Pesky facts! The film's director and co-writer, Peter Weir, now graciously calls the memoir a "novel."
Though dates and numbers may not jibe, "The Way Back" does add up to a thoroughly compelling survival story. Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a young Polish officer exiled for being "critical" of the Soviet regime. At Camp 105, he meets political prisoners and actual criminals, but makes no distinctions when picking his group of escapees. During a blinding snowstorm, Janusz and his team flee into the woods - only 3,999 miles to go.
Weir has always loved atmospheric locales ("The Year of Living Dangerously") and group dynamics ("Picnic at Hanging Rock"), and here he makes the most of both. The wanderers include, among others, a friendly murderer (Colin Farrell), an embittered American emigre (Ed Harris) and a stray girl (Saoirse Ronan), who form an ad hoc family as they travel from frozen woods to blistering-hot desert and beyond. In its visceral details and poignant emotions, at least, "The Way Back" has the ring of truth.