This minor classic, which tells the real-life story of a Frenchman who endured 10 years of harsh imprisonment in South America during the 1930s, arose from a turbulent development process. After screenplay drafts by writers on the order of William Goldman were rejected, the film went into preproduction with a script by the fine popcorn-movie scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr. By that point, Steve McQueen was committed to play the title character. Then Dustin Hoffman agreed to co-star in the picture, only there wasn’t a role for him to play. Enter Oscar winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was hired to weave Hoffman into the picture. Trumbo’s writing continued well into production—he was generating pages just a few days ahead of when they were being shot—so after Trumbo fell ill, someone had to finish the work, fast. Trumbo’s son, Christopher, did the job, writing the movie’s poignant final scenes. Thus, if the resulting movie has a bit of a patched-together feel, there’s a good reason—and it’s a testament to the skill of everyone involved that despite the convoluted gestation, Papillon works.
The film was adapted from a memoir by French criminal Henri Charrière, whose claim to fame was escaping from Devil’s Island, the infamous prison in French Guyana. (Never mind that many people have questioned the veracity of Charrière’s recollections.) When the story begins, Charrière (Steve McQueen) is convicted for a murder he did not commit, and then sent across the ocean to a lifetime term on Devil’s Island. (Charrière is nicknamed “Papillon,” French for “butterfly,” and an image of the winged insect is tattooed across his chest.) While in transit to Devil’s Island, Charrière befriends a bespectacled crook named Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), who has money but isn’t physically formidable. Charrière, on the other hand, is a tough guy, so they strike a protection deal. Yet what begins as a pragmatic arrangement evolves into a full-blown bromance over the course of several years; among other incidents, Charrière protects Dega from assailants and Dega smuggles food to Charrière while Charrière endures inhumane solitary confinement.
The movie combines intense scenes of prison suffering with thrilling escape attempts. Along the way, Charrière earns the respect of nearly everyone he meets by displaying superhuman determination. In one vivid but far-fetched vignette, the hero even curries favor with the charismatic leader (Anthony Zerbe) of a leper colony.
Despite extraordinary production values and the sure hand of director Franklin J. Schaffner guiding the story, Papillion drags somewhat at a bloated length of two and a half hours. Ironically, however, the narrative’s most expendable element is also one of the movie’s strongest virtues: Hoffman’s character. Because the myriad scenes of Charrière’s imprisonment are painful to watch (at one point, he eats bugs for survival), producers were wise to add the leavening agent of a major friendship. Hoffman is oddly appealing, affecting a cerebral, sarcastic quality while peering out through Coke-bottle glasses. Better still, his tightly wound energy complements McQueen’s he-man stoicism, giving the picture contrast it would otherwise have lacked. (The last scene between the main characters also has an undeniable emotional tug.) Is Papillon overlong and repetitious? Sure. But is it beautifully made and sensitively acted, with a reassuring theme of man’s indomitable spirit? Yes. And that’s what matters, at least in terms of what this memorable movie offers and delivers.