SLAVOMIR RAWICZ – The Long Walk. Constable, UK, hardcover, 1956. Lyons Press, hardcover, 1997. Reprinted several times.

THE WAY BACK. Exclusive Films, 2010. Dragos Bucur, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Alexandru Potocean, Saoirse Ronan Saoirse, Gustaf Skarsgård, Mark Strong, Jim Sturgess. Written & directed by Peter Weir, from the book by Slavomir Rawicz.

   I think it was back in 1998 when I first encountered The Long Walk in a new edition of a book well worth keeping in print, a straightforward true adventure of seven men who, if ghostwriter Ronald Downing can be believed, walked from Siberia to India, across the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas, to escape a Soviet Labor Camp in World War II.

   In 1939, Slavomir Rawicz was a Lieutenant in the Polish Cavalry (Yes, there were still mounted Cavalry charges against Tanks and machine guns then.) Following Poland’s defeat and partition by Russia and Germany, he — along with most other Poles in positions of any authority — was arrested for espionage, tortured and shipped off to Siberia. But Rawicz was a young man with no taste for spending 25 years in a forced labor camp, and he proceeds to tells us how he organized an escape that led to over a year’s walk across some of the most forbidding terrain on earth.

   This is quite simply a tale to be treasured. The author describes fatigue, starvation and thirst so vividly you feel them right along with him. And he fills his tale with enough colorful anecdote and terse characterization that by mid-point I felt I really knew these people. Add all this to a story of Homeric struggle and you get something quite special indeed.

   One caveat: Skip the co-author’s introduction until you’ve finished the book. It reveals a plot twist the reader really should happen across on his or her own. And enjoy.

   One other caveat: The Long Walk may be a work of fiction. There has been considerable doubt raised over the years — some by Rawicz himself — about the veracity of this narrative, including a book-length study, Looking for Mr. Smith. What it comes down to is that there is some evidence that such a trek did take place, but the circumstances of Rawicz’s life seem to preclude his having done it.

   All that aside, this is a superior tale of endurance and high adventure, vivid, compelling, and well worth your time.

   The movie is even moreso. Peter Weir’s fast-paced, fluid direction takes full advantage of a lavish production budget, dazzling locations, and makes excellent use of capable actors like Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and a dozen others unknown to me. He also provided them with a script filled with memorable lines and dramatic incident. Drop whatever you’re doing, and catch this one!