Dega: "You think it will work?"
Papillon: "Does it matter?"
Franklin J. Schaffner's Papillon is a gripping, entertaining picture, though it is nearly toppled by the heavy burden of its overworked ambitions. Schaffner, one of the skilled directors of live teleplays during that medium's "golden age," was boosted into the front ranks of Hollywood craftsman with the smash success of his 1968 film Planet of the Apes; he had another giant hit--and an Oscar-winning critical success--with 1970's Patton. Papillon, for all of its virtues (and there are many), often feels like Schaffner is trying (and straining) to top himself. Having reinvented himself as a maker of epics, he makes Papillon one--whether it should be or not.
The film is based on the memoir of Henri Charriére, the French fugitive (wrongly accused, or so he claims) who made several escape attempts from seemingly impenetrable prisons. Schaffner thankfully gets right down to business, finding Charriére (nicknamed Papillon and played by Steve McQueen) with assorted other felons on a ship bound for South America, where he meets counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). They don't become friends, not exactly. Due to his wealth, Dega is a target, so he and Papillon strike up a business arrangement: in exchange for protection, Dega will bankroll Papillon's escape once they reach their destination. "I have no intention of even attempting to escape, ever," Dega announces. Uh huh, we all say.
They soon arrive at the penal colony of French Guyana--"from which there is no escape!" a muckety-muck intones. Papillon's first attempt at escape fails, and he winds up in solitary confinement. That sequence showcases some of Schaffner's tightest and most economical filmmaking: repeated shots, claustrophobic framing, minimal dialogue, and harrowing visuals (both real and imagined). Finally, eventually, he is released; one of McQueen's most physically heart-wrenching moments in the film follows soon after, as he laps up "real soup--with meat in it" after barely surviving for months on half-rations. Once his strength is back, he immediately reaches out to Dega and begins planning his next escape.
Playing opposite each other, Hoffman and McQueen are something of a study in contrasts: the character actor and the movie star, the handsome '60s icon handing off to the kind of intense, chameleonic performer that will redefine the leading man. What is remarkable, in watching them work together, is how neither appears to be adopting either a right or wrong approach. Sure, one can nitpick--the Franco convict Papillon is being portrayed by McQueen, who is about as French as Kentucky Fried Chicken. But the role, in its best scenes, gives us McQueen at his essence: direct, unflappable, tough, determined. He is the title character, and the film is unquestionably his show; when the two men separate, we go with McQueen. It's not a performance of tremendous range (when he has to play the aged Papillon in the closing scenes, he's less than convincing), but it works. Hoffman, as expected, hides behind thick Coke-bottle glasses and a strangulated voice; as he did so often in his career, his characterization constructs barriers that seem almost explicitly designed to prohibit an emotional connection with the audience. But as in his best work, within the puncturing of those barriers lies the power of the performance, and in the duo's final scene, it is Hoffman's character that finds the emotional truth between them.
There are other actors, but the film is essentially a two-hander; in spite of its expansive running time (a too-bulky 150 minutes), all of the other characters--even seemingly important ones, like the third man in their most convoluted escape--remain ciphers. Schaffner's direction is occasionally ingenious; the way he uses an energetic orchestral performance as musical counterpoint to the intensity of the escape is clever, and the unexpected leap in the narrative's time frame late in the film is pretty daring. But one wonders what kind of film Papillon would have been in the hands of a more nimble director--a Sidney Lumet, say, or a John Frankenheimer. It is, without question, too damn long; the pace drags in some early scenes, and he indulges in decidedly hokey interlude with a topless caregiving native girl when our thoughts are elsewhere (hey Steve, how's about checkin' in on your buddies?). The production was an expensive one; Schaffner presumably wanted to take full advantage of his lush locations and give his studio bosses full bang for the buck. But the film's best moments are its small ones.
Papillon makes its Blu-ray debut on a 50GB Blu-ray disc, housed in a well-produced DigiBook. The handsome 34-page book features pages of full-color photos, along with background information on the production of the film and the parties involved.
The MPEG-4 AVC transfer is quite impressive for a film of this age; though the color scheme is a bit drab (it's a prison movie, after all), that low-intensity palate renders the occasional flashes of color (the red hat and lipstick of a woman bidding Papillon farewell; the blood of the boat's first casualty) even more vivid. Saturation is solid throughout, with the greens of the jungle and the clear blue waters surrounding the island prisons especially striking. Though much of the film is set in prison cells, the more picturesque scenes--the pursuit in Honduras, for example--will please Blu-ray viewers. Contrast is good as well, with the image equally impressive in bright, sun-drenched scenes as in dark, rainy ones. Black levels are top-notch; during Papillon's meeting with the lepers, the blacks are jaw-droppingly rich and evocative. Overall, a top-tier visual presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn't quite as overwhelming, but it's still satisfying. Dialogue is always clean and audible (even Hoffman's occasional mumblings), while the cues of Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score are sharp and powerful. Surround channels are used subtly but effectively, mostly for outdoor environmental audio (the whirring wind, the breaking waves, the sounds of the jungle). It's an immersive and robust track.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Special features are disappointing: just the sparse carryovers from the original DVD, and nothing new. The vintage featurette "The Magnificent Rebel" (12:19) includes clips and footage of Schaffner, McQueen, and Hoffman on the set, but the meat of the piece is in the participation of Charriére himself, who takes the camera through the recreation of the prison, remembers his experiences there, and talks passionately about the film's themes. The original Theatrical Trailer (3:52), which uses some of the same behind-the-scenes footage, closes out the bonus features.
Director Schaffner's epic ambitions occasionally put a drag on Papillon, but the film maintains its considerable power to thrill and move audiences. McQueen and Hoffman make an odd but effective pairing, and the picture's sweaty, intense storytelling and defiant message are as compelling as ever.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.