For Papillon, survival was not enough…he had to be free.
Papillon is the biographical tale of a French man determined to live free. The movie is a lesser, dated effort by a talented director and two actors in the primes of their careers.
Henri Charrière was born in 1906 in France. He was known as Papillon (French for “butterfly”) for the butterfly tattoo on his chest. He was a petty thief and safecracker. He was arrested in 1931 for the murder of a pimp, a charge he denied until his death. He was sentenced to life in France’s worst prison, the penal colony on an island in French Guiana. Three years later he attempted to escape by boat. He made it to the mainland and lived for a time with Venezuela’s natives before recapture. Papillon attempted escape eight more times before succeeding in 1944. He settled in Venezuela and opened a successful restaurant. He wrote the account of his life in 1968, and it was translated into this film in 1973. Charrière died that same year.
Franklin J. Schaffner was the director of Papillon. By 1973, he had already made the two other significant films of his career: Planet Of The Apes in 1968, and Patton in 1970 (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director). Charrière’s autobiography was adapted to the screen by Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was a prolific screenwriter who also wrote the World War II drama Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Roman Holiday, and the Stanley Kubrick epic Spartacus. He was one of a group of men in the 1940s, referred to as the “Hollywood Ten,” who were blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with the United States House Committee on Un-American Activities. The committee had been founded by Joseph McCarthy to investigate Communist influence in Hollywood.
In 1973, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman were two actors at the top of their games. McQueen had already starred in every film that would define his career — The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Bullitt, The Getaway, and The Thomas Crown Affair. The only film of note he would make after Papillon before his untimely death in 1980 was The Towering Inferno. Dustin Hoffman had also made several of his most critically acclaimed movies, such as Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Unlike McQueen, he continued to grow as an actor and would have many continued successes such as Kramer Vs. Kramer and Tootsie.
An acclaimed director, a compelling story, and two dynamic actors should make for a memorable movie, right? Sadly, not in the case of Papillon. It’s a “good” movie, but it fails to rise to the level of greatness. McQueen brings the right amount of desperation to Papillon, but unfortunately the movie just doesn’t bring across any motivations for his repeated escape attempts other than he just doesn’t want to be imprisoned. Hoffman portrays Louis Dega, a fellow prisoner who is imprisoned for forgery. He has managed to smuggle in money, which he gives to Papillon in exchange for “protection.” Papillon presents the horrors of prison as accurately as a 1970s-era PG-rated movie can allow. We are shown unsympathetic guards, death by guillotine, homosexual activity, and solitary confinement. I cannot imagine how anyone could survive thirteen years in that environment. For the most part, the movie follows the factual account I have given above (gleaned from the Encyclopædia Britannica website). The movie shows three of the nine escape attempts, most prominently the escape by boat. After his recapture, Papillon is placed in solitary confinement. It is at this point that the movie’s timeline confuses me. By the account above, the escape by boat took place in 1934. He is released from solitary prior to his final successful escape in 1944. Only ten years passed, and yet Papillon and Dega are both shown as senile, frail old men.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic, and the sound has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. Both audio and video show the limitations of transferring a film that is twenty-seven years old. The movie has a washed-out, fuzzy appearance throughout, typical of movies filmed during the 1970s. Edge enhancement is visible throughout the movie. Dust and scratches appear occasionally, but are not as bothersome as the other negative problem. Starting one hour into the movie, you can see horizontal blue lines flickering across the picture. It stops after a few minutes, but appears occasionally for the rest of the movie. Denizens of the alt.video.dvd newsgroup have noted that that particular video problem is not visible in television or videotape presentations. The audio mix also sounds like a movie of this vintage. My Poor Man’s System does not allow me to judge the surround field adequately, but I did notice that dialogue and sound effects were accurately placed left and right, though on the whole the sound is rather flat. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is featured prominently and loudly. He is perhaps one of my least favorite film score composers. His score has much in common with the one he wrote for Planet Of The Apes, but what can you expect from someone who wrote the music for twelve film and television productions in 1973 alone?
The only notable extra is a documentary of the making of the movie entitled “The Magnificent Rebel.” It features an interview with Henri Charrière, the subject of the film. The theatrical trailer is also provided. It superfluously claims that Papillon is the “greatest tale of escape ever filmed.” Hmm, I would consider that that title would go to Steve McQueen’s other prison break movie, The Great Escape.
The prison film genre is not without its great examples. Perhaps I am a bit harsh on Papillon after viewing The Shawshank Redemption. Both movies are about the triumph of the human spirit over oppression, but Papillon fails to capture the motivation of its hero as pointedly as the later masterpiece.
In a Jury of One column on this site, it was mentioned that you can find all sorts of interesting things by going frame-by-frame through the scenes of certain movies. In Papillon, start at the 29:35 mark and proceed through the rest of the guillotine execution. You can distinctly see the point at which the film cut away from the live actor to the dummy. The cut is made even more obvious by showing the executioner to the right and a sun flare to the left that were not visible a frame earlier.
Papillon is a movie well worth seeing in spite of its flaws. The disc is marred by problems with the print, and does not contain any extras that would make it a must-buy. Give it a spin as a rental.
For parents who think that their young children may be interested in Papillon, it should be noted that a PG rating meant something quite different in 1973. The movie contains a bloody decapitation, frequent profanity (though of little more severity that what is seen on most sitcoms), and rear male nudity.