Papillon Movie Review
The trouble lies in its placement in the evolution of the Hollywood action film. Papillon is a transitional species. At the same time it soars on old-fashioned virtue, it also suffers from modern vice. Its 150-minute running time, false endings, and mind-numbing repetitions make it an early predecessor of the indulgent blockbuster of today.
Working from Henri Charrière's book -- a supposedly true account -- director Franklin J. Schaffner begins the story in France, as a group of prisoners are marched onto an ocean liner that will take them to a brutal penal colony in a remote part of South America. Among the prisoners is Charrière (Steve McQueen), also known as "Papillon," an honorable thief who has been framed for the murder of a pimp.
On the boat, Papillon offers to protect a well-heeled prisoner, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), from the rest of the criminal population. All Dega has to do to ensure his safe passage is underwrite Papillon's escape once they reach French Guyana. Papillon and Dega strike a deal -- as well as an unlikely friendship of opposites. Papillon is a man of action, a safecracker, a physical presence, while Dega is a cunning intellectual, a slight man with coke-bottle glasses.
McQueen and Hoffman are right at home in their roles. McQueen delivers his signature brand of sullen machismo, always leaping into the heart of conflict, with his face creased in a perpetual squint. Hoffman, meanwhile, plays Dega as a frail creature thrust into a violent world. He shambles around the prison colony trying to keep his nose clean and his glasses intact.
When Papillon is ordered to serve two years in solitary confinement after an escape attempt, Dega sends coconuts to Papillon's cell to augment his meager food rations, a grave breach of prison rules. But when guards find out that Papillon has been secretly receiving food, he refuses to finger Dega as the source. This of course incites prison officials to inflict all manner of horrible deprivation on Papillon. Yet, even as he wastes away and his skin turns gray and his teeth fall out, Papillon doggedly refuses to turn on his friend.
Shaffner and screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. obviously aim to present Papillon's behavior as heroic, but his loyalty seems to come from simple stubbornness more than bravery. His friendship with Dega is forced. It's borne of convenience, not of true human connection. Self-sacrifice isn't required.
Later, after Papillon has been released back into the general population and nursed back to health, he plans another escape, and the film takes off. For two-thirds of its running time, Papillon moves slowly, intermittently flashing to life with brief bursts of action. Then, as Papillon, Dega, and another prisoner set out on a harrowing escape, it becomes clear that the story has been working its way toward this sequence, the grand finale. Shaffner's directorial style suddenly shifts into frenetic gear and McQueen and Hoffman rise to the challenge. In what is surely one of the greatest prison escapes ever put on film, Papillon and Dega dodge bullets, traverse jungles, sail across the ocean, and brave thrilling encounters with a leper colony, a bounty hunter, an indigenous tribe and the Honduran army.
The only problem is, the movie doesn't end there. Papillon just keeps right on going... Every time it seems like it has to end, it doesn't. It's like riding in a car with someone who keeps missing turns. On and on it goes.
Without ruining the conclusion, which does eventually come, Papillon and Dega are separated and then reunited for one last fateful decision. Their fates are entwined. But by this time, it's difficult to remember who the prisoners are, the actors or the audience. It's even more difficult to care what happens. It's a shame, too, because Papillon is otherwise a pretty good movie.