A Birmingham-born screenwriter’s dream project has finally seen the light of day after a 13-year battle, writes Alison Jones.
Call it fate, call it destiny but Keith Clarke was probably the ideal person to write a screen play about an epic journey.
His own personal journey has taken this son of a scrap metal merchant from the streets of Birmingham to the sun-kissed heart of the film industry in America, after he set out planning to hitchhike around the world.
And the film project he has been nurturing, based on the book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz, has taken he and his wife Joni Levin on an emotional journey as they struggled for more than a dozen years to bring it to the screen.
In screen form it has been renamed The Way Back and was finally released on Boxing Day.
It stars Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess and young Irish actress Saorise Ronan, and is directed by the legendary Peter Weir, the man who helmed Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show.
This is Keith’s debut as a screenwriter after having spent years carving out a niche writing, directing and producing documentaries together with Joni.
He has lived and worked in the States for 25 years but grew up in Ladywood, the youngest of 12 children
“That was pretty normal in the 50s and 60s, I knew families that had 20 kids. I have one beautiful daughter and it makes me wonder how you can share that love and connection with so many. My mother did, she was an amazing woman.
His dad was a scrap metal merchant with a horse and cart “just like Steptoe and Son” and a frustrated vaudevillian.
“He loved to sing and entertain in the evening. Nothing pleased him more than going down to the pub and finding a piano.”
At 16 Keith, a former pupil at Follett Osler school, wanted to spread his wings and left home, travelling south where he fell in with a crowd which sparked his interest in the arts and theatre.
“That opened up a world to me. If I had not gone I dread to think what might have happened. That was a real turning point and continues to be.”
His roaming eventually took him to America, but he remains close to siblings in Ladywood, visiting when he can.
“I am very fond of my family, they have been incredibly supportive of what I’ve done over the years.”
The Way Back is the story of a trek that covered almost as great a distance as his own from Birmingham to America.
But while Keith was able to rely on all the comforts and conveniences of modern travel, all 4,000 miles of the long walk was done on foot, in the most gruelling extremes of weather and with pitifully few provisions.
Rawicz’s book was published in 1956 and has been translated into 25 languages.
He was a Polish army veteran, who later settled in Nottingham, and wrote of how, during the Second World War, he escaped from a Siberian Gulag and spent months trudging to freedom in India, following a route that took him and his fellow escapees through the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas. He died in 2004.
Keith came across the account 13 years ago.
“We pitched this story 39 times to studios and production companies and were rejected,” he recalls.
He intended to write the script himself, but when major Hollywood players started taking an interest he was persuaded to place it in the hands of a writer with a proven track record in feature films.
At one stage George Clooney was considering the role of Mr Smith, an American imprisoned in the Gulag, which eventually went to Ed Harris. Directors Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg also cast an eye over it. However, it twice ended up in turnaround.
Frustrated Keith closeted himself away in his office and without telling Joni, hammered out a treatment. It was this that found its way to the hands of the Australian director Peter Weir.
“He was always our first choice but 12,13 years ago we were told we would never get him,”
The gamble Keith and Joni had taken had taken to shift their focus away from documentaries and into movies seemed to be paying off. But before Keith met Weir, he got a call from a contact at the BBC about a radio programme being made to make the 50th anniversary of the walk.
They revealed an unpalatable truth. Rawicz didn’t do it.
While he had been imprisoned in a Gulag, documents indicated he had never escaped.
Further digging by the BBC team uncovered a Witold Glinski, an elderly Pole living in Cornwall who said that he had escaped imprisonment in Siberia and in the company of others, including an American and a young girl, made his way to India. He had given details of the trip in a debriefing interview.
His heart sinking, Keith knew he had to break the shattering news to the director, even if it meant dashing his dreams of getting the film made.
“My first meeting with him, after we exchanged greetings, I said ‘Peter, see the title? It says true. It is not. But we know somebody did it’.
“We had no idea what his reaction would be. But I couldn’t not tell him. If he was going to be scared off I wanted him to be scared off at that moment.”
They decided to forge ahead with Weir fictionalising the story and letting it stand as a tribute to the many millions who spent hellish years in the Gulags and the millions who perished, often being locked up for the most spurious of reasons.
The plight of one character, Khabarov is anecdotally based on true accounts. Portrayed by Mark Strong, he is an actor who is sentenced to ten years hard labour after playing an aristocrat and “elevating the status of the old nobility”.
“I’ve had better notices,” he quips.
Peter and Keith actually travelled to Moscow and meet a woman who, as a 17-year-old student in 1954, had discovered what was happening in the Gulags.
She rallied three other students to join her in a protest about it.
“They were arrested within a week. Her three friends were shot and the only reason she wasn’t was because she knew her interrogator, who was a neighbour and remembered her playing outside as a child. He sentenced her to ten years hard labour which was equal to that of the men’s. They also worked in mines and in lumber yards.
“We met this woman who lived in this communist block of flats and she had books by Martin Luther King and Gandhi. She has such spirit. To this day she still p****s Putin off.
“She was one of the founders of Memorial (an association based in Moscow involved in protecting human rights) to make sure those who died under Stalin and those who were lost in the Gulags were not forgotten.
“Meeting people like this is truly humbling.
“We went on location to China, Mongolia and Siberia and we met survivors and escapees.
“For a lad from Birmingham to go on that trip, to meet these people and discover these lives, that is the joy of what we do.”