|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 31 May 2005|
PAPILLON keeps coming close to greatness, and never makes it. Based on the international best-selling autobiography of Henri Charriere, a French petty criminal who was convicted to the French penal system in South America. After several escape attempts, he was sent to "Devil's Island," a prison where the true guards were the sharks in the waters around the isolated isle. Nonetheless, Charriere finally did escape from Devil's Island.
The movie version was written by Dalton Trumbo (who appears briefly as a prison commandant who tells the prisoners "France has turned her back on you") and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Director Franklin J. Schaffner -- whose own life would make an interesting movie -- had scored a triumph five years before with PLANET OF THE APES, escalating his reputation with PATTON. He'd slid a little with NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, made just before PAPILLON -- but he had definitely established himself as a director of epics.
But PAPILLON might have worked better if it hadn't been treated as so much of an epic. Shot over several months on locations around the world, including Spain, Jamaica and Hawaii, the movie was done on a big scale, with sweeping photography by Fred Koenekamp and realistic production design by Anthony Masters, whose sets fill the screen. At 151 minutes, PAPILLON is also of epic length.
But the story itself is intimate and austere. It focuses almost entirely on Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen), a classic French criminal, the kind with a grin on his face and a woman on each arm. He's known as "Papillon" (poppy-yoan -- butterfly) because of the big tattoo of a butterfly on his chest. He befriends fellow prisoner Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a mousy little counterfeiter in thick eyeglasses, who's famous for having bilked hundreds of wealthy people. McQueen in on screen almost every minute of the film; the few scenes with Hoffman but without McQueen are about Charriere.
The story doesn't even deal with questions of his guilt or innocence; he admits to being a bank robber early on, but denies having committed the murder that has got him sent to the Penitencier de St. Laurent in French Guiana. But once he's said this, it's over and done with; the movie is not about what he did before prison, but his dogged, courageous persistence in escaping from prison. His story was famous the world over, and Papillon became a symbol, almost a synonym, for a prisoner who escapes.
Although Dega has smuggled in a good deal of money (in his rectum), he's unable to buy easier prison duty for himself and Papillon (called "Pappy" by many) because his crime had impoverished the family of a prison official. They're sent into the jungles around the prison to clear the land; there's a memorable, and pretty funny, scene in which McQueen and Hoffman try to grab hold of an angry crocodile.
Papillon, coincidentally, gets his first chance at escape because he catches a rare butterfly, but he's quickly recaptured and sent to solitary for two years. His efforts at holding onto his sanity while at the complete mercy of the uncaring guards, who can black out his cell at will, are grueling and unpleasant to watch. Put on half rations for refusing to identify Dega as the source of the money he paid to try to escape, he mashes up cockroaches and centipedes in an effort to make the thin gruel he's fed more nutritious. Ack.
Finally released back into the population, he soon escapes again, this time with Dega and another prisoner. This is the most exciting, adventure movie-like section of the film, as they flee by boat, then on foot through the jungle. Papillon is soon separated from the other two, and lives for a time in peace with some Indians, but nuns turn him over to the authorities, and he's sent to solitary for five years.
We're spared his torments this time, but he's clearly been through a lot, as he emerges a shambling wreck of his former self, his hair now stark white. As an incorrigible escapee, he's sent to Devil's Island itself.
PAPILLON abounds in details: the colors of the walls, the types of prison uniforms, feisty little crabs defending themselves, the lives of the Indians he lives with, and so on. But the details don't add up to a richer portrayal of Charriere's life -- they just prolong the movie. It is an epic of punishment and escape, and does celebrate Charriere's stubbornness and courage, but each scene goes on too long, and the focus just on Charriere becomes wearisome after a while.
This is despite the fact that McQueen gives one of his best performances as Papillon. McQueen was a star, really, rather than an actor, but when he was well-cast, he absorbed the film into himself; it became an extension of McQueen, rather than the other way around. His persona was that of the cool, hip loner, the outsider who lived by his own honorable rules, but was aloof from society -- which made him ideal casting for Papillon.
He's more convincing than Dustin Hoffman, who by most standards is a far better actor than McQueen. But as Pauline Kael noted in her review of the movie, this time you can see Hoffman's actor's mind at work. It's not a performance so much as a collection of ideas for a performance; you can see the wheels go around. He never relaxes into the role; he's constantly acting. We never forget that McQueen is McQueen, but there's only the narrowest of lines between him and the character of Henri Charriere; Hoffman simply cannot convince us that he is anyone other than Dustin Hoffman playing the role of a French forger.
Even though the movie is not the classic that was intended, it's still very watchable, particularly if you've never seen it before. Schaffner may tell his story slowly, but he tells it well. He also keeps a kind of editorial distance from Charriere; neither he nor the script make any special pleading on behalf of Papillon -- he is what we see him to be. The movie celebrates his courage and persistence, but it doesn't make Charriere himself out to be a wronged, good man.
The DVD is a standard presentation, letterboxed to preserve Koenekamp's excellent photography. The sound is especially good, as it was on the original film: the stereo is exceptional, and the natural sounds are strikingly realistic. Jerry Goldsmith's score is also outstanding. The DVD includes a "making-of" documentary shot at the time of the film's original release; the opening and closing are typical of this kind of film, even slightly below average. But it also includes scenes of the real Henri Charriere visiting the locations, and talking about his experiences. This is the most realistic, involving element of the DVD; it's too bad it's so brief.