Papillon (1973) … Remembered
Papillon is a 1973 classic film about a prison break that rivals The Great Escape. It stars Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, who complement each other so well that it is hard to tell who gives a better performance. Some say it is McQueen. This movie certainly is a highlight of his career, but others say Dustin Hoffman shows the truer emotion. I checked out this film to see for myself.
The movie begins at a port with a high-ranking official announcing the prison rules to a group of new prisoners waiting to leave for a penal colony. All of them stand there naked for some reason and are ordered to forget France because now they will live out the rest of their lives in French Guinea, possibly even serving as workers after their sentence is over. Their former lives are over. He crushes their spirit in good cause, wanting them all to accept their situation. We can tell as we learn about the characters that many of them do not, but eventually they can’t help themselves.
People of the town watch on as the prisoners dress and march through the streets to a ship, which will take them to the prison. That is where we see Dustin Hoffman as Dega and Steve McQueen as Papillon for the first time. A woman from the crowd obviously knows Steve McQueen’s character, and she claims that he’ll be back. A man next to Papillon disagrees.
On board the ship to Guinea, Papillon talks to another prisoner and this sets the foundation for the movie, explaining what the stakes are, and the prisoner gives a promise that not much lies ahead. Papillon claims he is innocent and it is obvious through the rest of the scene that his character is cocky, as well as scheming. He plots his next moves carefully, making a deal with Dega to help him with his escape once they reach Guinea. Everything is played very straight, except maybe for a few wise-cracks from Papillon. The whole ship and the whole environment is just caked in grime, as if to reinforce the world we’re entering.
There isn’t much to the movie this far in, but what is given really helps the immersion. The places and the small amount of dialogue do the job moving the movie forward. This movie really looks extraordinary. After Papillon and Dega are put on work duty, a moment illustrating the nature of their relationship is really quite amusing and dramatic both at the same time. Papillon and Dega are ordered to remove a crocodile who swims in a nearby water hole and they stumble around it apprehensively, jumping back at every movement from the crocodile. Both characters are apprehensive and show their true nature as they stumble about. Dega is the shy intellectual type and Papillon is a thug, though has a sharp mind and brawn, both equally matched. This is a great scene.
Many of the scenes showing the prisoners working reminded me of Platoon and Apocalypse Now, with heavy rain and a tropical atmosphere. The gritty realism also reminded me of Vietnam wartime movies. After trying to escape, Papillon is put in “reclusion”, where he suffers physically. This is where the picture focuses on Papillon exclusively, watching him as he paces around and tries to survive in his hell hole. As he lives there, Papillon is slowly driven mad, which is obvious from the dream sequence that make no sense. However, it does establish Papillon’s state without any exposition whatsoever. Of course, there are plenty of other scenes that show the slow degradation of Papillon’s person. McQueen plays it well.
Papillon is released when his term in solitary is up, but the revelation is sudden and shocking. Papillon cannot really it believe it either and he stumbles out of his cell, but can barely walk. He collapses on the ground, but eventually returns to the prison proper. It’s a great moment. Maybe a little short, but McQueen plays it perfectly, showing the character’s yearning for freedom. Upon seeing him free of seclusion, Dega actually cries seeing his friend again, because it is obvious that he has so much but Papillon has so little. Hoffman finally lets it go and milks the emotion. It’s great.
Strangely enough, Papillon remains the same cocky man we met at the beginning of the film, still wanting a boat, still wanting to escape, and still wanting to live by his wits. Dega refuses to do the same, but is caught up in the moment and is forced to stop some suspecting guards from raising the alarm while his friends escape. He then runs for it and escapes with Papillon, which is not the climax of the film, surprisingly, because the trio of escapees are later double-crossed. So they have to follow an alternative plan. These little twists are some of the things the movie does best.
Papillon, Dega, and their new friend Maturette make it to a nearby island and we get more deal making. This is with an hour left in the movie. They sail away with a new ship and we are given our Robinson Crusoe moment, but its all for not. They are captured and Papillon winds up back in the same place he was at before: solitary reclusion. The time between these events is where the movie drags, but we are invested in the characters now, so I didn’t mind. Not that much anyway. The pace might be the biggest flaw in this movie and it really drags it down in spots. But with only one weakness I can think of, Papillon is pretty good at this point.
They skip any pretense of showing us more Papillon suffering scenes and deal with the emotional trauma. You can see it on his face. He is desperate, but still clings to the fact that escape might be possible. Dega seems ready to accept his fate, but Papillon can’t. He won’t. They are assigned to an island, where no escape seems possible. Papillon begins to embody the man who is still trapped in a dark hole, where both places have driven him to the brink of insanity, his dark cell and now the island. Papillon studies the waves and the currents, quickly assuming that he can use just the right tides to escape. Dega begs his friend not to commit himself to this plan, which he assumes is a faulty judge of the tides. But after Papillon jumps off a cliff into the water, Dega doesn’t. He begins to cry, either for hope for Papillon or out of despair for himself, it is not clear. He turns away and walks off after Papillon successfully floats away. This is true to Dega’s character and shows the clearest difference between Papillon and Dega.
All in all, Papillon is an excellent and beautiful movie. If it only had a couple more moments of true emotion or dialogue, it might be even better. I wish they had used a close-up on the scene of Papillon and Dega hugging each other at the end and saying goodbye. I’m not sure why they kept it a wide-shot. All the actors do an excellent job, but this movie is long. Roger Ebert gave this movie 2 out of 4 stars for that reason. I’m not sure if it deserves that rating, but it certainly is an old-school tale that shows more than tells, letting the actors milk each scene for its emotion, if they can. I would say that they did, accomplishing good performances. To answer my original conceit, McQueen is the star of this film, but Hoffman shows more emotion and both of them got through to me about who these two characters really were. I enjoyed watching Papillon. It’s a great movie.