Based on true events, Papillon is one of those great seventies movies that stood the test of time. It took me quite a while to get over this doubt I had about older movies. I simply refused to watch them, in part because I thought they would be lame and outdated. But also because I felt that’s what you do when you’re an old fart. Watch cowboy movies from the sixties and talk about John Wayne. On the other hand, I’m slowly but surely becoming that eighties movies pest. Now I just need to pick my favorite actor of that decade although I just as much love movies from the nineties.
Based on true events, Papillon is both riveting and frightening at the same time. It uses the life of Henry Charriere as a focal lens to highlight our society and the way we treat criminals. Intertwined with this, is a personal story of freedom, crime and destiny. It’s based on a book written by Henry back in 1970. Some of the things that he described have been proven to be not true by the French authorities and Henry himself told the press that the book is about 75% true. It is suspected that he added things that did happen, just not to him. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I am sure that there’s a guy somewhere with a story that’s so crazy that no one would believe him. And he will not get a movie, so that’s that.
It depicts the life of inmates in French Guiana (South America) prison system and the almost unbearable conditions that they had to endure. As his way out of the prison, Papillon offers a rich but weak Dega protection from other inmates.
One of the first things you’re going to notice about Papillon is the slow, engaging, and quite a deliberate pace at which the story unfolds. With a runtime of two and half hours, this is a prison epic with an incredible atmosphere. First of all, it’s immersive as fuck, transporting you into this harsh environment. Although I was sitting comfortably in my room, I was feeling all the heat and humidity like I was there, in French Guiana. This is a movie about perseverance and strength of human character. It’s one of those rugged seventies movies, where everything felt like it’s infused with testosterone but without any effort. It just happened to be that way and that’s it.
Of course, the cast of Papillon did a terrific job, starting with our main guy, the star of the sixties, supercool Steve McQueen. He was willing to go the distance, giving one hell of a committed performance. Dustin Hoffman was also great as scheming Dega. The production values were also great and they even recreated the prison using original blueprints. By the way, Papillon is available both on Bluray and various streaming services featuring superior picture quality. Considering just how good French prison movies were at the time, I wonder why they didn’t make this movie. A Man Escaped and The Hole are true classics and if you liked Papillon be sure to check them out. Finally, you can also take a look at our Rabbit Reviews collection of Prison Movies. Enjoy.
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writers: Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr., Henri Charrière
Cast: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe, Woodrow Parfrey, William Smithers
Fun Stuff: Steve McQueen insisted on performing the stunt where he jumps off a cliff. McQueen once said that it was “one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life”.