'The Way Back': 'Hollywood's First Attempt to Portray the Soviet Gulag'

Well, better late than never, right? Not to take anything away from Peter Weir, who is a fantastic director, but does this mean that 20 years after the War on Terror ends we’ll finally see Hollywood’s First Attempt to Portray the Islamist Threat? Our friends over at Powerline have seen the movie and have more. Main story below.

Anne Applebaum in today’s Washington Post:

“It’s based on a true story.” Or “It’s truth, but stranger than fiction.” Or even: “You couldn’t make it up.” When Peter Weir gets sent film scripts these days, most of them advertise themselves as “true.” That wasn’t always the case: Weir (who made “Gallipoli,” “Witness,” “Master and Commander”) dates the tilt away from fiction and toward “fact” back to Sept. 11, 2001, the day reality did suddenly seem “exactly like a Hollywood movie.”

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The growth of reality television surely explains the change, too. So is Hollywood’s bottom line. “Reality is a brand which people can sell” says Peter Morgan, who wrote the script for “The Queen” – a movie based on the (true) story of the Princess of Wales: “If people need to explain what a film is about, the film stands very little chance of surviving.” In a world where so many movies, books and television programs jostle for attention, familiar historical stories – World War II, Watergate – get an extra boost. True, familiar and recent stories are even better. The tale of that Harvard student who invented Facebook and is now a billionaire comes to mind. So does the saga of the hiker who cut off his arm.

But what about stories that are true but totally unfamiliar? Do we – can we – still watch people in real situations of a kind we’ve never thought about before? As it happens, Weir’s latest movie, “The Way Back,” might answer this question.

For “The Way Back” is a unique and groundbreaking film: It represents Hollywood’s first attempt to portray the Soviet Gulag, in meticulously researched detail. I know this to be true because I was a historical consultant to Weir. He asked me for advice because I wrote a book about the Gulag, but he did plenty of research on his own, as his questions reflected. Once, he called to ask whether the guards leading the prisoners off the train would have been wearing the same uniforms as the guards receiving them at the camp (answer: no).

“The Way Back” is based on a book called “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz, a Gulag survivor who “borrowed” his escape story: Three Poles crossed the Himalayas from Siberia into India in the 1940s; the Polish consulate recorded their arrival; one of them told his story to Rawicz. But the film is “true” in every way that matters. Many of the camp scenes are taken directly from Soviet archives and memoirs. The starving men scrambling for garbage; the tattooed criminals, playing cards for the clothes of other prisoners; the narrow barracks; the logging camp; the vicious Siberian storms. Among the very plausible characters are an American who went to work on the Moscow subway and fell victim to the Great Terror of 1937, a Polish officer arrested after the Soviet Union’s 1939 invasion of Poland and a Latvian priest whose church was destroyed by the Bolsheviks.

Full article here.

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