Papillon is a great film. I fall just short of declaring it a masterpiece, but it’s certainly a proud cinematic achievement (seriously, there’s some lovely stunt work going on here). Based on the true, kinda true heavily fictionalised story of Henri Charriere (his real name is never given here, except for a brief shot of his jail cell), the movie is pretty much an episodic collection of incidences from his time in captivity, having been wrongly convicted for killing a pimp. Naturally some of these individual segments work better than others, and some seem a little disjointed, but Steve McQueen really ties it all together. Which is really something since he’s starring opposite Dustin “Oscar gold” Hoffman.
I’m going to open with a confession. I’m not the biggest fan of prison movies. I recently confessed that I’m not in love with The Shawshank Redemption. Still, I really enjoyed Papillon.
The cinematography is beautiful, perfectly capturing the wet heat of the tropical climate and the surreal soul-destroying nature of these genuinely beautiful surroundings. It’s a cruel joke that these tropical trappings that to many would represent some sort of paradise instead become the very symbols of Papillon’s captivity. The film captures perfectly the more sinister elements of such a climate – the malaria, the bugs, the wildlife, the sun burning even the sand. In many ways it’s the mood of the film which succeeds above everything else.
I mentioned above that the film is episodic, and could probably be easily broken down into five or six chapters each covering a piece of Papillon’s adventure. From the opening half hour on the boat over to the colony to a wonderfully expressionist sequence with Papillon in solitary confinement for years to his biggest escape attempt involving blow-dart-wielding natives, there tends to be a bit of a disjoint between these sequences – a bit of mood whiplash. There’s some fascinating surreal stuff happening during Papillon’s stay in solitary (including a trip into his dreams) which seems at odds with the brutal realism that surrounds it. This isn’t to favour one approach over the other, just to observe that they make strange bedfellows, particularly when that sort of surreal film making drifts in for half-an-hour before drifting out.
Still, it’s the performances which make the film. McQueen is great as the eponymous minor criminal thrown deported to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He actually outshines Dustin Hoffman as the shy bookworm (counterfeiter) he will inevitably befriend. The friendship costs both men dearly over the course of the film, and perhaps represents one of the movie’s only two insurmountable beacons of hope (the other being, you guessed it, the sheer resistance of Papillon’s soul or desire to be free). McQueen throws himself at the part here and though the movie counts on makeup to do a fair bit (particularly when Papillon comes out of solitary), he carries the movie on his back. It’s a great performance and one which probably deserved more recognition than it got.
All in all, Papillon is a stunningly well put together film. It’s prone to ramble and wander quite a bit, and could arguably have benefited from some of the discipline that the prison tried to impose on its inmates. But then that would defeat the point, wouldn’t it? It looks stunning and maintains interest over a two-and-a-half-hour running time. I’m not sure it’s the greatest escape movie ever made (as the tagline suggests), but it’s a damn good one.