“I accuse you of a wasted life. The penalty for that is death.”
A French prisoner (Steve McQueen) sent to Devil’s Island offers protection to a wealthy forger (Dustin Hoffman) in exchange for monetary help in attempting to escape.
Based on a heavily fictionalized memoir by Henri Charriere, this epic prison escape film — co-scripted by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner after his successes with Planet of the Apes (1968), Patton (1970), and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) — offers a potent mix of gorgeous scenery and harrowing brutality. Knowing McQueen’s “Papillon” (so-named because of a prominent butterfly tattoo on his chest) will eventually escape mitigates a bit of the horror, but there’s no denying we see the worst of humanity on display at Devil’s Island (the now-defunct prison at St-Laurent-du-Maroni in French Guiana, with sets fully recreated for this movie). Adding to the overall bleakness is Papillon’s constant existential grappling with the meaning of life; what in the heck is the point of all this, anyway? It’s not quite clear. Meanwhile, there is little to do but wait things out and see how he and Hoffman manage to survive.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Steve McQueen as Papillon
- Fred Koenekamp’s cinematography
- Jerry Goldsmith’s score
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)