Please accept our apologies for Judge Dennis Prince, who uncharacteristically blushes every time he mistakes the term as "penile" colony.
Two men with nothing in common except the will to live…and the place to die.
Based on the best-selling book purported to relay the true accounts of convict Henri Charrière (whose content is continually being charged as fabrication, in part or in full), Papillon reached the big screen under the guiding hand of veteran director Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton) and featured two top stars of the day, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. While some have proclaimed Schaffner's style to be uneven and unpredictable, his skill at bringing to life the harshness and inhumanity detailed in Charrière's accounts must be acknowledged. Although it was previously released on DVD in 2001, this re-release is ushered in with the release of the canon of McQueen's work (The Blob notwithstanding).
McQueen portrays Charrière, more often referred to as "Papillon" (that's French for "butterfly"). With a butterfly tattoo emblazoned in the flesh on his chest and upholding a proclamation that he'll live his life in freedom or not at all, Papillon finds himself falsely accused of murder and is now trudging alongside some of France's most bloodthirsty criminals en route to the penal colony of French Guiana. He meets up with a sly but physically incapable forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman, Marathon Man), who bargains with "Papi" that he'll underwrite any escape attempt in exchange for close physical protection. Papi agrees, and the two become unlikely friends. Dega's first attempt to bribe a prison guard backfires, and the two are sent to the grueling work camps of Devil's Island. There they come face to face with the worst that man and nature have to offer. Death and despair surround them at every turn, and Papillon's first escape attempt is foiled, gaining him an extended stay at the island of St. Joseph's reclusion camp. Narrowly surviving the physical and mental anguish of isolation, Papillon rejoins Dega and others in a prison-run hospital. Another escape attempt is foiled, and it's back to solitary confinement. Refusing to ever give up, Papillon's will remains undaunted and, with Dega ever by his side, the two press on in their living hell until they can find their way to freedom.
At the time of its release in 1973, Papillon was noted as a major motion picture event, largely fueled by the international best-selling status of Charrière's book of the same name. The challenge for Schaffner, the cast, and the crew was to bring Charrière's account to vivid and often vicious life on the big screen. As the film's original theatrical featurette deftly noted, "to film these perils meant to endure them." Certainly, the conditions that awaited the cast and crew in desolate and unexplored locations in Jamaica, Spain, and the actual islands of French Guiana were nearly as treacherous as the original conditions described by Charrière himself. And, for their efforts, the company of filmmakers had been acknowledged for following the author's detailed accounts as precisely as humanly possible. (An Academy Award nomination was also extended to Jerry Goldsmith for his highly lyrical yet severely haunting score, and Steve McQueen's performance in the title role garnered a Golden Globe nomination.)
Many detractors of the film assert that the picture moves at a snail's pace, and, largely, they're right. That, however, goes part and parcel with the subject matter at hand as director Schaffner deliberately detains us so that we endure the characters' on-screen ordeal. Plodding yet methodical, this approach successfully gives the sensation that time has significantly stretched or stopped altogether (I could have sworn it was a three-hour picture after a first viewing and then was surprised to discover that 30 minutes of that time had been a mental manipulation on the part of the film). As we sit through extended scenes of the rain-drenched work camp, the arid atmosphere of the butterfly hunt, and the grimy claustrophobia of the confinement cell, Schaffner sentences us to wallow in the convicts' misery to the point that we become restless, consciously or subconsciously unsettled by the stark conditions presented on screen.
For its time, Papillon somehow pushed the MPAA's "PG" rating to its very limits or else lulled the review board to sleep and slipped out quietly with a branding that would allow youngsters to view the numerous scenes of carnage and cruelty without a parent in tow. Some have stated that the film isn't very violent by today's standards, yet if you look again at the beheading, throat slitting, disembowelment, and various knifings and shootings, it's a grisly spectacle to behold. The blood runs a bit on the pinkish side and that might soften the starkness some but it's violent nonetheless; you'd be best forewarned that it's not for sensitive viewers, be they child, teen, or adult.
In the final analysis, Papillon should be noted for its achievement as one of the better escape adventures yet captured on film (others would include the equally effective The Great Escape and Escape from Alcatraz). It's a tiresome, even exhausting, experience—yet one not to be missed. While it hasn't been heralded as either McQueen's or Hoffman's finest work, the chemistry of the two men adds an unsettled sort of détente to the proceedings and serves as a fine example of the range both embodied in their craft.
Sadly, the quality of this new disc borders on the criminal side and appears to be an inferior forgery of a revamped version. In truth, this seems to be the identical presentation offered to us in Warner's 2000 snapper-case release (at least the case has been updated to an Amray), and that means you'll continue to be subjected to the generally grainy and often soft image throughout the feature. It's evident that some edge enhancement has been applied, yet—perhaps due to a rough source print—to have applied much more would certainly have degraded the final product in a different yet equally unwelcome direction. The audio is likewise disappointing, coming again in the same muddled Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that spreads the soundstage somewhat but actually only really succeeds in obscuring the dialogue such that much of it is rendered difficult to decipher. Given this result, it would have been more welcome to find the film's original mono track as a selectable option. The couple of extras here are vintage and much appreciated but unfortunately go only about as far as a tin of the work camp gruel. Best is the original 1973 featurette, "The Magnificent Rebel," a 12-minute mini-documentary that goes on location for some behind-the-scenes footage of the film crew in action and an extended segment with Henri Charrière himself, who served as technical consultant to the production. The only other extra is the original theatrical trailer, presented in 1.85:1 widescreen format but in rather rough shape. A feature commentary is sorely missed, one that could have consisted of Dustin Hoffman providing insight and anecdotes on the unusual production (Shaffner, Charrière, and McQueen have all passed away).
"Society doesn't want free men. They talk 'freedom,' 'democracy,' anything you want, but they don't want free men. Society wants conditioned men, men who march in step." So said Charrière, and now, with more than three decades since the release of Papillon, we can continue the discussion, which argues society's management of its misfits and which seeks to answer the ultimate paradox: who's more criminal, the jailed or the jailor? Let the debates go on.
In the meantime, Papillon the film is found not guilty as it succeeds in portraying a gripping adventure with its own stark brand of realism. Warner Bros., however, is hereby sentenced to a reclusion cell to reconsider its digital mishandling and unapologetic reissue of a DVD formerly noted as inferior. Court adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "The Magnificent Rebel" Featurette
Review content copyright © 2005 Dennis Prince; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.