Papillon (1973)

Papillon (1973)

“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.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Dustin Hoffman Films
  • Escape
  • Friendship
  • Fugitives
  • Prisoners
  • Steve McQueen Films
  • Survival

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

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


3 thoughts on “Papillon (1973)

  1. A once-must (I admit, surprisingly) – for its status among the more challenging films in contemporary cinema, Schaffner’s direction, and the two lead performances.

    Film fanatics are accustomed to biopics which, to varying degrees, give way to distortion of facts which can often be easily disproved upon exploration of the original story. They’re less used to films like ‘Papillon’: where the ‘facts’, as first presented, have ended up being disputed by various sources. (At bottom here, I’m linking to what seems a believable breakdown of where ‘the truth’ lies – though it’s also stated that the actual amount of truth, and whose truth it is, may never be known.)

    In the case of this particular film, though, I don’t think the percentage of reality is of all that much consequence. If it wasn’t true (or all true) as put forth in the original book, it’s likely it was true of *somebody* or of many men – which seems the main point. (I haven’t read the book but my understanding is that its details make the film seem tame by comparison.)

    Almost from start to finish, this is not an easy watch. Yet, I don’t sense exploitation. As is generally true of Schaffner’s best work, he has taken his subject very seriously and presented his ‘case’ with a unique maturity.

    It’s a long film, to be sure – but I can’t honestly say that it feels needlessly long. There’s rarely a scene in Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s tight script that isn’t powerful or moving in some way. …That’s not to say that I think the film would hold up well on repeat viewings. It’s still rather exhausting. (I hadn’t seen it since its initial theater run.)

    Though I’m not a particularly huge fan of either McQueen or Hoffman, I was rather taken with their commitment to these roles.

    DP Fred Koenekamp shot Schaffner’s ‘Patton’ and his work here is equally impressive – as is Jerry Goldsmith’s atmospheric score.

  2. A good film but not a massively significant production these days. It was a prestigious star vehicle in its day but seems to have fallen by the way side and the remake came and went without making any waves.

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