Papillon is widely considered a classic of the prison film genre. Based on the autobiography of Henri “Papillon” Charrière, it tells the story of the titular criminal and his imprisonment in (and subsequent escape from) the penal system in French Guiana in the 1930s.
Steve McQueen stars in the title role, and with Dustin Hoffman supporting, Papillon has its fair share of star power. But really, despite both actors delivering outstanding performances, the film has so much more to give.
It’s a beautifully colourful film, which directly contrasts the horrific conditions of Papillon’s imprisonment. Each and every scene boasts a truly gorgeous backdrop – the film was shot in various locations in Spain and Jamaica – and it’s all brought to life with gritty, hopeful realism.
McQueen is effortlessly cool as Papillon, sensitively portraying that while even the toughest of men can be beaten down by the system, they don’t always break. There’s an unwavering note of hope in everything McQueen does, and its offset by Hoffman’s increasingly doubtful turn as Louis Dega.
A good movie score goes mostly unnoticed, quietly adding atmosphere at key moments. A great score does more than just that: it adds a wordless context, conveys emotion and elevates a film to something more than a story – and that’s exactly what Jerry Goldsmith’s score does throughout the film.
Papillon is far from perfect, though. Its story might be intriguing and entertaining, but its a long, winding narrative with more than a few odd turns. (This could be easily forgiven, considering that it’s based on Charrière’s memoirs, except it’s since been discovered that the real-life Papillon filled his book with lies and snippets of other people’s experiences. Therefore, let’s judge it as a work of fiction.) It suffers from a number of pacing issues, with certain aspects of the story moving incredibly slowly, and others skimmed over far too quickly. There’s also a bizarre scene in which Papillon spends a time living with a remote native tribe in Honduras, for which we’re offered no context, and it ends as quickly as it began.
Papillon is a one-of-a-kind film, and it’s without a doubt one of the greatest prison movies ever made. McQueen delivers the sort of performance that makes him a legend of the big screen, perfectly incorporating emotional drama, despair and action into a single role. He also deserves an extra nod for actually performing Papillon’s dizzying cliff jump himself.
Papillon might not be the greatest story ever told, but it’s a beautifully made film that remains every bit as relevant today as it did almost 50 years ago, and it’s more than deserving of its status as a classic of the 1970s.
Summary: What Papillon lacks in narrative reliability, it more than makes up for in its cinematography, scoring and acting. McQueen is given ample opportunity to do what he does best, and with Hoffman beside him, Papillon promises not to disappoint.