Saturday, April 21, 2012

Papillon (1973) -- Frank Schaffner

Convicted of murdering a pimp, in 1931 Frenchman Henri Charrieri is sent to the infamous prison in French Guiana. Amidst the jungle with its disease and dangerous predators, and surrounded by shark-infested ocean, escape is thought impossible, but Henri spends the next fourteen years plotting and executing several attempts at freedom.

Based on a 1969 bestseller, initially marketed as non-fiction but since considered more accurately a novel based on Charrieri's prison experiences, Papillon tells a story of perseverance. Even if events are embellished, it is a remarkable tale. The film joined perhaps the two biggest Hollywood stars of the day. Steve McQueen plays the title role, which in French means "butterfly," a tattoo of which adorns his chest. Dustin Hoffman plays Louis Dega, a fellow convict and notorious counterfeiter who befriends Papillon on the steamer from France. In exchange for protection against other convicts, Dega promises to finance Papillon's escape attempts.

Papillon and Dega witness a prisoner shot by guards.
I remember reading the novel upon its initial release, and its surprising revelation that prisoners hid money, drugs, or other small valuables in small canisters that they shoved up their rectum. Thankfully the film doesn't depict any insertions but the dialog makes its clear that that practice was a routine one. Authenticity was an aim of director Schaffner, who does a marvelous job depicting the miserable conditions under the brutal French penal system of the day. In one memorable moment the convicts get to witness an execution by guillotine, likely the most realistic sequence of its type ever put on screen. Guards lead a frantic prisoner to the mechanism, push him onto an inclined board that positions his head in the device (lunette) directly beneath the blade. He strains to turn his head upward, the blade comes down with a whomp, the head drops, and the camera is splashed with blood.

Losing one's head in French Guiana. 

Some of the best scenes, and McQueen's best acting, occur with Papillon in solitary confinement. It's an awful place, entered with this advice from the warden: "Put all hope out of your mind. And masturbate as little as possible, it drains the strength!" Absolute silence was the rule amongst prisoners, a circumstance that fits perfectly with McQueen's acting style. Throughout his career he favored as scant a script as possible, relying on expressions and body language to do the work of the character.

In Charrieri's book and the film, Papillon serves two such sentences for failed escapes, the first for two years, and the second for five (in the book, the term is shortened). It's a small cell, just five steps across. Food--an exaggerated characterization to be sure--and water are passed through a small door in pails and a bucket, and periodically the prisoners are inspected for head lice and receive a hair cut by sticking their head out a small trap in the wall. The warden explains that they aren't interested in rehabilitation, just punishment. How any man could withstand such isolation is amazing.

When Dega sneaks Papillon some coconuts to supplement his meager food, the warden puts the prisoner on half-rations for six months because he refuses to disclose who sent them. Papillon never breaks, though it is difficult. He resorts to eating vermin that crawls across his floor. One shot shows him dropping three bugs into his weak soup to give it some substance, including a disgusting looking centipede he cuts in half. The film's best moment occurs as McQueen almost rats out Dega. At the last moment he changes his mind, feigning dementia. McQueen then turns to the camera and eats the message with Dega's name on it.

Though they do a wonderful job on the actor's face to convey the deprivations--dark circles under the eyes, greying hair, teeth ravaged by scurvy--McQueen looks too robust and healthy under his ragged uniform.

A fine example of the actor's accomplished use of non-verbal acting comes as Papillon is released the last time from solitary confinement, his debt to France paid. His shuffled stiff walk across the yard seems perfect for a man made old before his time.

Solitary confinement.

There is some terrific camera work in the film, some high crane shots of the execution and earlier as the prisoners stand in the yard, and of the beautiful blue of the ocean (actually either Jamaica or Hawaii). And the action sequences are well done, particularly one escape attempt with McQueen running through the jungle, pursued by natives with blowguns and darts.  He and Hoffman wrestle with a crocodile in another good scene, arguing over which is the head and which the tail in the muddy water. (Look closely and you might notice the reptile's mouth is tied shut).

There are also a few awkward moments in the film that feel out of place or disrupt the pace. Schaffner inserts two short dreams or hallucinations in the solitary confinement sequences that are jarring, and a longer piece where Papillon spends an unspecified time with a native tribe during one breakout. Totally tangential to the main story line, it emphasizes McQueen's true physical condition as he appears shirtless. Apparently the studio commissary was well-equipped.

Here he takes a lover and inks a tattoo on the chief (played by Victor Joey of all people, who has nary a line of dialog). This excursion ends with the tribe disappearing during the night with no explanation, Papillon seeking sanctuary with some nuns, who promptly turn him over to the authorities for re-incarceration. One wonders if author Charrieri had something against religion.
Prisoners stand naked receiving instruction.
In any case, by the end, the film makes a magnificent recovery as Papillon finally is released from jail. But having completed his sentence, he is still not allowed to return to France. Instead, he gets the choice of working at the prison or spending the rest of his days on Devil's Island in a simple cottage. He opts for Devil's Island, where we are re-introduced to Dega, who now tends a garden and looks after his hogs. The old friends have not seen one another for at least five years. By now, each actor looks to have aged considerably more than would be expected under a civilized fourteen-year period. The makeup and physical movements are outstanding.

Papillon has not given up his quest for freedom and builds a small raft of coconuts, which he throws off a cliff into the sea, timing the perfect wave to pull him free of the coast. In an overhead shot from a helicopter, we see McQueen lying on his back, a big grin on his face. He calls out triumphantly in a perfect Hollywood ending: "Hey you bastards. I'm still here!"  

A commercial success, the film made the year's top five in gross receipts, it was largely ignored by the Academy, with only one Oscar nomination coming its way, that for Jerry Goldsmith's score. McQueen at least earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. It's arguably his second best career performance, after Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles.  In a baffling move, Academy members thought more highly of Robert Redford's pedestrian work in The Sting  than McQueen's performance. 

Charrieri served as a consultant on the film, but died five months before its release. He was 67.


  1. Great post! I have never seen this movie; it sounds fascinating.

  2. silverscreenings, thanks for commenting. I've always loved McQueen. Wish he'd been more active in his forties. He certainly died far too young.

  3. I haven't seen PAPILLON since its original release. I was disappointed at the time because it was marketed as another GREAT ESCAPE (in fact, the tagline was "the great adventure of escape"). They are very different films, of course. Based on your review, I think it's definitely worth a re-evaluation.