Len Fearnside’s review published on Letterboxd:
I was one of 'those' kids. While my friends were reading choose your own adventure books and Encyclopedia Brown, my Mother mandated I read things like 1984, Moby Dick, and, oddly enough, Papillon. Not sure what I got out of them at that age, but I read them and liked some more than others (I've re-read 1984 dozens of times since then, but I can't bear to look at Moby Dick and some of the others that were thrust upon me).
My retribution for being made a literary outcast was to exclusively watch schlock horror films (truly, this was all I watched for a long period of my youth) and that worked quite wonderfully until I finished reading Papillon. I enjoyed the book so much, I broke my vow of horror chastity and sat down to watch the film with my Mom. As far as I can remember I loved the movie too, even though, disappointingly, only one person was decapitated in the entire runtime.
It has been over twenty years since I last watched the film and to be totally honest I remembered very little of the book and the movie going in, but that may have been a good thing since it was like watching it for the first time with fresh eyes.
The story is fantastic, covering the many escape attempts, from various prisons, of Papillon and the unusual friendship he developed with Dega along the way. What really makes this movie sing though is two things, the performances and the pacing.
McQueen is amazing as Papillon; stoic, yet personable, and even becoming heartwarming at times as his relationship with Dega develops. Everyone else around him was great too, particularly many of the smaller, side characters who pop up along the way. They brought various things in, even humour at times, which really helped to keep the film moving. At 2.5 hours, you would think something like this might drag, but it does not at all. In fact it moves at such a great pace, it was pretty much over before I even realized.
Suffice to say I love the film and even though now many people seem want to discredit Charrière's autobiography, it may be time to re-crack the spine on that one so I can go through it with him all over again.