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1973 isn't the best year on record for movies, but Franklin J. Schaffner's epic-length Papillon is among the better pictures to come out of Hollywood that Fall. It was part of a last-gasp effort at major league filmmaking by the distributors Allied Artists, who had just previously had their name on Bob Fosse's celebrated Cabaret and would soon afterwards proudly present John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King. Conceived as a class production tailored to the talents of its top stars Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, the picture was the third hit out of four tries from Schaffner, the director of Planet of the Apes, Patton, and Nicholas and Alexandra.
Papillon is not the kind of movie that would find friends in France, as it concentrates for over two and a half hours on the barbaric treatment given prisoners on Devil's Island, the French penal establishment in French Guiana. The company saw extensive filming in Jamaica, Hawaii and Spain, and uses shots of the ruins of the film's actual setting over the end credits. The French disputed many of the claims made by author Henri Charrière in his autobiographical novel, including his assertion that he was innocent of the murder that sent him to Devil's Island in the first place.
Schaffner's movie makes of the novel an existential tale of survival, with Steve McQueen as a prisoner who suffers for fifteen years, seven of them in solitary confinement, for a crime he did not commit. He's given the name Papillon after a large tattoo of a butterfly on his chest. Dustin Hoffman is Louis Dega, a swindler who cheated thousands out of their life savings through the sale of forged securities. The two are part of a shipment of convicts shipped off to a South American penal colony. They're literally men with no future, as France is simply disposing of them. Even if they survive the hardships and finish their sentences, they'll be forced to live out their days on one of the colony's escape-proof islands. Prisoners take their own lives or are killed by other prisoners; a confused kid (Billy Mumy) tries to walk away and is shot. Two-time loser Julot (Don Gordon, McQueen's partner in Bullitt) fakes an injury to avoid a hazardous work detail, a ploy that doesn't work either. Papillon initially makes friends with Louis Dega over the fact that Dega is carrying a small fortune on his person and can pay for bodyguard protection. The two become friends and do their best to help one another, an effort that mostly fails in the long run. By playing meek and making himself useful, Degas wins a relatively safe clerk's job. Papillon falls victim to scammers that sell escape plans to prisoners, who are then betrayed to the colony's ruthless man-hunters. Papillon survives his first two-year stint in solitary by eating whatever filth is placed in front of him, and scavenging for cockroaches on the side.
Papillon's co-screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is the valiant survivor of the Hollywood Ten who was publicized as breaking the blacklist ten years before. In the early 1970s he enjoyed a brief blossoming of creative opportunities, writing and directing a film from his most famous book, Johnny Got His Gun. Trumbo revels in detailing the various levels of misanthropy perpetrated on the French prisoners, who are deprived of any semblance of human rights. The most frequent event in the movie is seeing yet another dead body carted away. The abandonment of the production code allows Papillon to be explicit in its details. Louis Degas apparently carries his fortune in bills, rolled up and hidden in his anus, for years. That's one way of inspiring a 'quirky' performance. The prisoners witness a summary execution of a screaming prisoner by guillotine, a head chopping pictured as a close-up horror. One of Papillon's intrepid comrades in escape is Maturette (Robert Deman), a homosexual who gets along by performing sex acts. A great mental and physical force of will is required to survive in a society dedicated to the persecution and disintegration of the individual.
For the most part the realism and novelty of Papillon are completely absorbing. We want somebody to escape but the grim realism suggests that that's probably not going to happen. Papillon has something of the spirit of Hilts in The Great Escape, but the German Air Force played mostly by fair rules of war. The French make it perfectly clear that a high death rate is desirable. From screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's perspective, Papillon is very much like his adaptation of Spartacus: faced with adversity, resistance and survival are worthwhile goals even when defeat is inevitable. Papillon throws in some well-observed fantasy scenes, including one in which Papillon realizes that his guilt or innocence is irrelevant because he's wasted his life. We're told that the only political prisoners condemned to Devil's Island were sent there a century before by Napoleon III. Unable to characterize Devil's Island as a political gulag, Trumbo had to settle for basic existential realism.
The movie features a gallery of excellent character actors, most of which play scurrilous characters unlikely to attract award attention. Woodrow Parfrey is a cellblock crony who encourages Papillon to escape over the years and Val Avery a degenerate trustee; Gregory Sierra is a Columbian prisoner who briefly teams with Papillon in an escape. Victor Jory is the chief of a small tribe that takes Papillon in for a time and Barbara Morrison a Mother Superior who offers Papillon sanctuary from the Columbian police. Veteran western stunt man Richard Farnsworth is a murderous man-hunter, while Anthony Zerbe is the spokesman for a colony of lepers, aided by an alarmingly convincing makeup. We can always count on Zerbe to play the most extreme character in a cast list. In a brief cameo as a French official giving the prisoners a bad news speech is screenwriter Dalton Trumbo himself. You can't miss his broad white mustache.
Papillon received only one Academy nomination, for Jerry Goldsmith's glowing music score. Although not a blockbuster movie it was well received by the public, so the lack of actor nominations was possibly a slight to Steve McQueen, who at this time still carried the reputation of a highly paid action star. Perhaps the Academy thought the script was too carefully engineered to solicit award consideration, even though McQueen is excellent and Hoffman very good. This most realistic account of the horrors of Devil's Island certainly swept away a lot of earlier movies that misrepresented the island. If you recall, Tod Browning's The Devil-Doll associated the prison hell with a profane fantasy about miniaturizing people to be used as assassins. Frank Borzage's Strange Cargo is a grotesque drama about a Devil's Island escape that turns into a crazy story about a Christ figure. Here we get the lonely figure of a broken Papillon, white haired and hobbled, studying the waves that batter the Devil's Island cliffs, formulating yet another plan for escape to show "the bastards" that he'll never give up. Just surviving that long is a miraculous victory for Papillon and Louis Dega.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Papillon certainly beats all earlier video presentations of this film -- the splendid tropical images of cinematographer Fred Koenekamp are a compensation for the film's often-grim events. Papillon never worked in older TV presentations, as the story simply got lost among all the commercials. It works only as an unbroken ordeal, with occasional touches of humor and beauty.
The audio comes in DTS and 5.1 in English, with subs in English SDH, French and Spanish. It's too bad there isn't a French audio track, as that might take away the only barrier between the film and total credibility. Besides the trailer with it's "Important!" selling point, the disc comes with a original making-of featurette The Magnificent Rebel. The "Little Golden Book" packaging contains a 32-page souvenir booklet containing many colorful stills, and a lot of publicity writing laden with lethal plot spoilers. Read it afterwards.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Papillon Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.