Papillon ★★★½

"When you're on those islands, you're there for keeps."

True story: I was in jail and I had a cellie who called himself Papillon. Oh of course he had a butterfly tattoo on his chest. Yes really. Nice guy.


Papillon is the 1973 prison escape drama based on the memoirs of Henri Charrière, the titular inmate. Gritty and grimy, we are transported to French Guiana and the penal colony where Papillon, who believes he is wrongly imprisoned, must break out.

Featuring probably Steve McQueen's last great performance, and a strange but compelling role for Dustin Hoffman, legendary author and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo helped pen the screenplay and did not shield viewers from the brutal treatment, slave labor, and and meager rations provided to the incarcerated. Coming from someone who has a little experience with the criminal justice system myself, no, things really aren't much better today.

While the film fits into the "escape" genre I suppose, the best and most affecting scenes are without question those of Papillon in solitary confinement after repeated escape attempts. Emaciated, mad from isolation, trying to keep his last threads of humanity... this is where McQueen raises the film from a too-long saga to a psychological study of how brutal confinement can ruin a man.

Roger Ebert famously said of this film, "You know something has gone wrong when you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over." Ha, well, where I can see where he was coming from and it could have been fine a half hour shorter, I do disagree mostly because the scenes that are great are especially great and those parts I didn't want to end at all.

Some is a little dated, and some is clearly sensationalist, but overall I think it still holds up well today. Give it a shot before the unnecessary remake comes out this week.

Added to Franklin J. Schaffner ranked.

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