Co-written by surviving HUAC-blacklisted (“Hollywood Ten”) screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and contributed to by the gifted William Goldman (“Marathon Man”), “Papillon” is a biographical prison escape saga like no other.
This brilliant film’s ingenuous script takes full advantage of the book’s most sensational, if odious, aspects without making judgments. What you get is a full-throated tale of human endurance by a doomed prisoner who relies on his friendship with France’s most prolific counterfeiter (Louis Dega) as much as Dega relies on him. The escape adventure movie is also a love story between two men.
Over more than a decade, career criminal Henri “Papillon” Charriere (Steve McQueen) attempts repeated escapes from a French prison on “Devil’s Island,” 12 miles off the coast of French Guiana. Some of Papillon’s attempts are more successful than others. He keeps falling for the same boat-buying scam by ruthless con men that prey on the prison’s desperate prisoners.
Based on Charriere’s memoir, McQueen’s Papillon ages believably over his 11-year confinement, yet the character never looses his childlike hunger for freedom. For the condensed dramatic license that Trumbo and Goldman gleefully take, we can be certain that life for prisoners on the prominently guillotine-equipped penal colony was fearsome. A graphic scene of the guillotine in use creates a shocking and chilling effect, heightened by the presence of kneeling prisoner-witnesses when the deadly blade drops. The prisoner’s head falls off. Blood splatters on the movie screen. This is ‘70s era filmmaking at its most provocative.
Famous after having directed two hugely successful films — “Planet of the Apes” (1968) and “Patton” (1970) — Franklin J. Schaffner created an exact full-scale replica of the remote island prison down to every last detail. The movie breathes with realism. The blackout roof that Papillon’s guards pull over his solitary confinement cell as added punishment is accurate, as is the blocked-off wall slot through which he receives a steady diet of watery broth. Correct too is the hole in the cell door that Papillon sticks his head through to be shaved or choked, depending on the day.
This consummate prison-break epic features Steve McQueen’s greatest transformation of character creation over the course of his estimable film career. His multi-layered character examination here persuasively anchors the reversal-filled storyline. McQueen plays the iron willed Papillon with a clear-eyed intelligence tempered by an invincible capacity for endurance. He’s a survivor. When necessity demands, Papi chops up cockroaches and giant centipedes to put in the broth he eats as his only nourishment in solitary confinement. He tells himself that he will eat everything they give him in order to keep up his strength.
Director Schaffner buffers Papillon’s misadventures with appropriately surreal dream and nightmare sequences. Upside-down perspective-shifts and widescreen horizon shots demonstrate Papillon’s troubled subconscious mind.
Dustin Hoffman is a perfect foil for Steve McQueen’s rugged charisma and fascinating gifts as an actor. You can see in the way that Hoffman’s character looks up to Papillon, that part of that admiration is coming also from Hoffman the actor.
Rated R. 151 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
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