Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A superior period prison escape movie — although I was curious about the casting.
What did I get? Like its main characters, Papillon is, at first glance, tough-minded and uncompromising — an impression that cloaks a core of sentimental mush. It’s a gripping and involving movie that uses everything in its filmic arsenal to convey what for most viewers is an unimaginable gauntlet of cruelty and pain, but the fissures in its originating text undermine the movie’s coherence. Schaffner’s contributions are similarly divided: his acceptance of the truth of the story allowed him to deliver a powerful movie, but he might have been a touch less naive about the material.
The most affecting, overwhelming, and undeniable element in Papillon is surely the setting, mostly islands off the steamy, equatorial coast of French Guiana in the 1930s. Schaffner wisely flaunts his budget and rejection of stage sets; this is a David Lean telling of The Count of Monte Cristo, basically. Outdoors, the camera is always catching some expanse in the background, some vista that asserts, in no uncertain terms, “We did this on location”; even in interior scenes, the actors’ sweat communicates much the same thing. The occasional transparently faked trickle of blood or overamplified Foley thud tends only to accentuate how far the filmmakers ventured, for 1973, in the name of realism.
The bedrock presumption of the historical truth of the events depicted in the movie surely upped everyone’s game, from Schaffner to McQueen as the eponymous escapee and Hoffman as the cerebral Dega. Henri Charrière published Papillon as a memoir in 1969, but later investigations established that the word “fiction” belonged to the discussion to some degree. From today’s perspective, a single screening is sufficient to demonstrate that lots of stuff in the movie never happened.
The central puzzlement — and the surest sign of authorial embellishment — is Papillon’s inexplicable loyalty to Dega, who, as an inmate sorely in need of his protection, should logically have remained Papillon’s mark. For reasons too convoluted to detail, Papillon maintains a silence to protect Dega over several months of near-starvation in solitary confinement. After he improbably survives the ordeal, Papillon even more improbably insists to Dega that “you owe me nothing.” Really? While the psychology of resistance towards the prison’s authorities cannot quite account for this degree of sacrifice, Papillon’s probable origins as a composite do — which is also true of Papillon’s occasional, vivid dreams of self-loathing, told in an effective nouvelle vague style.
Papillon and Dega are set up as opposites: Papillon is an animalistic roughneck falsely (we’re told) convicted of murder, while Dega is a mildly unctuous and bespectacled perpetrator of financial fraud. Both, however, prove surprisingly sentimental. Whereas Papillon engages in a sacrifice that utterly confounds his self-image as a world-wise manipulator, Dega’s illusions mainly center on his wife. As Schaffner’s earlier Planet of the Apes (which the post-escape final third of the movie often resembles) and Patton demonstrated, Schaffner is nothing if not comfortable with feebly justified extremes of behavior.
Recalling Hilts in The Great Escape, Papillon is always thinking about flight. McQueen’s charismatic opacity is perfect in a role that was later shown to be more mythic than real. As the intellectual Dega, Hoffman communicates how limited his more “sensible” calculations are. Hoffman endows the inherently annoying Dega with a sweetness that lets us see how naive his man of commerce really is. Schaffner wasn’t a great filmmaker, but in his stolid way, he was a great popular entertainer of a kind. His filmmaking chops were more mature than his instinct for bullshit, which isn’t a bad recipe for huge audiences.
What here smacks of 1973? The salience of resistance at all costs.
IMDB score: 8.0
My score: 7
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writer: Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Starring: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Deman, Woodrow Parfrey, Bill Mumy, George Coulouris, Ratna Assan, William Smithers, Val Avery, Gregory Sierra, Vic Tayback, Mills Watson, Richard Farnsworth, Liam Dunn
IMDB synopsis: Henri “Papillon” Charierre is sentenced to life in prison and transported to the penal in French Guyana. Aboard ship on the voyage over, he meets Louis Degas, a forger. They form a bond that will last them a great many years. The conditions at the penal colony are horrific and Papillon desperately wants to escape. He first attempt ends quickly in failure and as a result he spends 2 years in solitary confinement. His next attempts is somewhat more successful and he actually spends a idyllic time with a tribe of Central America Indians. Once caught however, he does 5 years in solitary confinement. Once released, he decides to make one final attempt at freedom.