Sunday, October 6, 2019


Continuing to get through the backlog of movies I recorded during Summer Under the Stars, I recently watched Papillon to do a post on it here.

Steve McQueen plays the title character, a man whose real name is Henri Charrière but who has the nickname "Papillon" (French for "butterfly" because of the butterfly tattoo he has on his chest). At the beginning of the movie, he's being marched the the streets of a French city sometime in the 1930s on his way to a boat, which is going to transport him and a bunch of other prisoners to the notorious Devil's Island prison colony off the coast of French Guyana.

Papillon's reputation precedes him; one of the other prisoners who makes his acquaintance is the bespectacled Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). While Papillon is going to Devil's Island for a murder he insists he didn't commit, being a safe-cracker by trade, Dega is going for having forged French bonds and bankrupting a whole bunch of people, so there are many on the transport and at the prison who are going to have it in for Dega. He needs protection and has a wife and money at home; perhaps he could use some of that money to get protection courtesy of Papillon and help fund an escape attempt for the two of them.

Devil's Island is uncompromisingly brutal. A passing reference is made during the transport that 40% of the people sent there don't survive the first year, and even if you do there's terrible humidity and malaria out in the work camps. But trying to escape may be even worse, as the warden tells them when they first arrive that getting caught trying to escape means two years in solitary confinement the first time, and five years the second time.

Even having said that, prisoners think they might actually have a shot of escaping, and Papillon sets out trying. He gets caught a first time and sent to solitary, which is of course even worse than the regular prison conditions. It's a tiny cell where the guards look down on him; complete silence; and, when Papillon breaks the rules, screens put over the top of the cell to leave him in complete darkness. For months at a time.

Papillon's indomitable spirit is going to lead him to try to escape again, while Dega has tried to make the best of a bad situation by working with the authorities to the extent it won't get him in trouble with the other prisoners. Indeed, Dega has been helping Papillon out to the extent possible while Papillon was in solitary and in the prison hospital after being released from solitary. So when circumstances threaten to bollix Papillon's second escape attempt, Dega helps him out and eventually goes along on the escape attempt.

Papillon is based on a book by the real-life Henri Charrière, who wrote the book based on his experiences in Devil's Island. I don't know how accurate the book (which I haven't read) is or whether his stories and the adaptation of them for film are him embellishing what happened at Devil's Island. One thing that I have seen is that the Dega character is actually quite a small one in the book and that in the movie he was built up out of several characters from the book because the movie needed a second star.

In any case, Papillon is a pretty darn good movie. It has a languorous pace which at times seems as though it could have been sped up, but considering how much of the movie is about the isolation and tedium of prison, and especially solitary, the slow pace isn't as much of a problem here as it is for some other movies. McQueen and especially Hoffman give good performances, and the locations (mostly Jamaica according to IMDb) are sufficiently forbidding. Papillon is more than worth a watch.

Papillon has been released to DVD. Note, however, that the story was remade a few years back, so you'll want to make certain which version you're getting (I haven't seen the remake).

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