A 4,000-mile walk sure is impressive, but does it make for a good movie? “The Way Back” — a beautiful story of Soviet prisoners who walk all the way from Siberia through bitter cold and unforgiving desert toward India and freedom — shows that the answer is yes.

The Way Back

At Rave

Based on the book “The Long Walk,” the film is an allegedly true account — “allegedly” because questions about the authenticity of the story have swirled since the book was first published more than 50 years ago. Seemingly confirmed as a fabrication at one point, “The Long Walk” was recently redeemed when a former Polish POW living in England revealed the account was true, and that he in fact was among those who made the journey from Siberia to India.

Truthiness aside, the film is an admirable production that manages to convey the heartbreaking reality of its characters’ lives without going overboard on sentiment or theatrics.

Political prisoners being worked to death in hellish labor camps in the far reaches of Siberia, eight men hatch a plot to escape. But breaching the barbed wire fence is just the first of their challenges: They must then walk thousands of miles through blinding snowstorms and frigid temperatures unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t been to Siberia — all without adequate food to sustain them.

After overcoming impossible odds to get out of the tundra and over the Soviet line, the prisoners learn that Mongolia is also under communist control, and they won’t be truly safe until they walk through to China. They brave the Gobi Dessert, and then traverse the Himalayas before entering British India to complete their stunning journey to freedom.

Parts of the film are in Russian (with subtitles), but the majority is in accented English. Nevertheless, audiences won’t feel inclined to question its authenticity. Benefiting from a talented cast — including Hollywood regulars Ed Harris (“Appaloosa”), Jim Sturgess (“21”), Saoirse Ronan (“The Lovely Bones”) and Colin Farrell (“In Bruges”), in addition to lesser-known American and foreign actors — the film manages to keep its epic story on a fathomable scale for its viewers. Never does it get lost in its own grandeur, and that is more than can be said for most Hollywood productions.

There are, of course, moments of agony for the escapees, and several of them die excruciating deaths along the way. The suffering is immense, but portrayed on the small scale and thus kept very personal — most readily reminiscent of the hours spent under the rubble in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.”

Audiences may not exactly leap at the prospect of 133 minutes of pain and agony, but “The Way Back” presents its tragedy in a way that understands the limits of a viewer. Director Peter Weir could have presented much more graphic material and defended it as authentic. He chose instead to lighten an impossibly sad story with humor and personality. The result is a film that is perhaps far more watchable than something this inhumane should be.

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