ⓘ Papillon (1973 film)


ⓘ Papillon (1973 film)

Papillon is a 1973 historical drama prison film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. The screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. was based on the 1969 autobiography by the French convict Henri Charriere. The film stars Steve McQueen as Charriere and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega. Because it was filmed at remote locations, the film was quite expensive for the time, but it earned more than twice that in its first year of release. The films title is French for "Butterfly," referring to Charrieres tattoo and nickname.


1. Plot

Henri Charriere Steve McQueen, a safecracker nicknamed "Papillon" because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest, is wrongly convicted of murdering a pimp. In 1933 he is sentenced to life imprisonment within the penal system in French Guiana. En route, he meets a fellow convict, Louis Dega Dustin Hoffman, a forger and embezzler who is convinced that his wife will secure his release. Papillon offers to protect Dega if he will underwrite the formers escape once they reach French Guiana. Enduring the horrors of life in a jungle labor camp, the two eventually develop a friendship.

One day, Papillon defends Dega from a sadistic guard and escapes into the jungle, but is captured and sentenced to solitary confinement. In gratitude, Dega has extra food smuggled to Papillon. When the smuggling is discovered, the warden screens Papillons cell in darkness for six months and cuts his rations in half, believing that it will force him to reveal his benefactor. Though emaciated and half-insane, and reduced to eating insects to survive, Papillon refuses to give up Degas name. After two years, he is released and sent to the infirmary in St-Laurent-du-Maroni to recover.

Papillon sees Dega again and asks him to help arrange for another escape attempt. Dega arranges for him to meet an inmate doctor, who offers to secure them a boat on the outside with the help of a man named Pascal. Fellow prisoner Clusiot Woodrow Parfrey, and a gay orderly named Andre Maturette Robert Deman join the escape plot. During the escape, Clusiot is knocked unconscious by a guard. Dega is forced to subdue the guard and reluctantly joins Papillon and Maturette, climbing the walls to the outside. Dega fractures his ankle in the fall. The trio meet Pascal and the men escape into the night. In the jungle the next day, Pascal delivers the prisoners to their boat. After he leaves, they discover that it is a fake. They encounter a local trapper John Quade, who reveals that he had killed the bounty hunters that were waiting for them, and guides the three to a nearby leper colony, where they obtain supplies and a seaworthy boat.

The trio eventually land in Colombia, and are accosted by a group of soldiers, who open fire and wound Maturette. He is captured along with Dega, still crippled by his broken ankle, while Papillon is forced to flee. Papillon evades the soldiers and lives for a long period with a native tribe; he awakens one morning to find them gone, leaving him with a small sack of pearls. Papillon travels to a police checkpoint and pays a nun to take him to her convent. There he asks the Mother Superior for refuge, but she instead turns him over to the authorities.

Papillon is brought back to French Guiana and sentenced to another five years of solitary confinement. He emerges a graying old man along with Maturette, whom he sees just before the latter dies. Papillon is then moved to the remote Devils Island, where he reunites with Dega, who has long given up all hope of being released. From a high cliff, Papillon observes a small cove where he discovers that the waves are powerful enough to carry a man out to sea and to the nearby mainland. Papillon urges Dega to join him in another escape, and the men make two floats out of bagged up coconuts. As they stand on the cliff side, Dega decides not to escape and begs Papillon not to either. Papillon embraces Dega a final time, and then leaps from the cliff. Grasping his float, he is successfully carried out to sea.

A narrator states that Papillon made it to freedom, and lived the rest of his life a free man.


2. Production

Papillon was filmed at various locations in Spain and Jamaica, with the cave scenes filmed beneath what is now the Xtabi hotel on the cliffs of Negril. The town scenes near the beginning of the film were shot in Hondarribia in Spain. The St-Laurent-du-Maroni penal colony scenes were actually filmed in Falmouth, Jamaica, and the swamp scenes were shot near Ferris Cross. But Steve McQueen’s famous cliff-jumping scene near the end of the film took place from the cliffs in Maui, Hawaii. McQueen insisted on performing the cliff-jumping stunt himself. He later said that it was "one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life."

McQueen was paid $2 million along with the contractual stipulation that he receive first billing over Dustin Hoffman. In addition, author Henri Charriere himself acted as consultant on location: he let the makers of the film know of the things he encountered during his years of imprisonment.

The Prison of St-Laurent-du-Maroni where Henri Charriere was held, and where most of the action takes place, was faithfully recreated using the original blueprints. Footage of the historic Prison in French Guiana plays under the end credits, which is shown to be abandoned and covered in jungle growth.


3. Soundtrack

The score to Papillon was composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. It was recorded in Rome, Italy at the Ortophonic Recording Studio by the "Unione Musicisti Roma Orchestra". The film marked Goldsmiths fourth of seven collaborations with director Franklin J. Schaffner, following his Academy Award-nominated scores to Planet of the Apes 1968 and Patton 1970. Both the director and composer shared the belief that film music should be used economically; they wanted the music as commentary only in sequences where it can emphasize the psychological aspects of the film. In Papillon, the film is two and a half hours long, but has 40 minutes with music.

Goldsmiths compositions, characterized by a late romantic symphonic and impressionistic style suffused with a metered, exotic timbre using instruments from Caribbean folk music, are distributed mainly in the second half of the film. They generally accompany scenes outside the prison, during the various escape attempts by the protagonist. He used a delicate melodic approach, dominated by a very catchy theme expressed as a waltz, which was often played by an accordion. This instrument was associated with the French origin of the protagonists. The theme became famous with the popularity of the film, and it was released in many performance variations by different record companies.

The score was partially produced on vinyl in 1973 and reissued over the years. In the 21st century, an edition was produced on CD by Universal Records France. For the first time, this has the complete version of music from the film it includes about five minutes of previously unreleased tracks. The DVD version of the English-language version of the film includes an option to listen to Goldsmiths music as an isolated audio track.

Goldsmith had his sixth Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score for this soundtrack. It was one of the American Film Institutes 250 nominated soundtracks for the top 25 American film scores.


4. Critical reception

Roger Eberts review at the time of the films original release was two-of-four stars; he said that the main flaw was a failure to gain audience interest in McQueens and Hoffmans characters: "You know something has gone wrong when you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over." Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "a big, brave, stouthearted, sometimes romantic, sometimes silly melodrama with the kind of visual sweep you dont often find in movies anymore." Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote, "For 150 uninterrupted minutes, the mood is one of despair, brutality, and little hope. On a professional level, the Allied Artists release is expert in all creative and technical areas. On an audience level, it is a relentless downer." Gene Siskel gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and called it "just plain boring." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Papillon is an eloquent tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit and a powerful indictment of those institutions dedicated only to breaking it. As such, its lots easier to admire than to enjoy." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it "a keen disappointment. this lumbering vehicle directed by Franklin J. Schaffner leaves Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman stranded on the screen while opportunities for vivid filmmaking and sympathetic characterizations are bungled at every turn." Richard Combs of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that "what is missing is any of the books anger at the outrageous hypocrisy, injustice and inhumanity of the system; any of the passion which feeds Papillons compulsion to escape."

Papillon holds an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 26 reviews.


4.1. Critical reception Awards and honors

In 1974, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score Jerry Goldsmith and a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actor, Drama Steve McQueen.


5. In popular culture

The song "Devils Island" by the American heavy metal band Megadeth, written by lead singer Dave Mustaine, was inspired by this film and appeared on the bands 1986 album Peace Sells. but Whos Buying?. Mustaine mentions this before playing the song during the bands Rude Awakening live DVD.

The song "Human Insecticide" by the Canadian thrash metal band Annihilator from their 1989 album Alice in Hell was inspired by this film.

The Editors song Papillon, from their 2009 album In This Light and on This Evening, opens with the line Make our escape, youre my own papillon.

Mark Kozelek and Desertshore recorded a song called Hey You Bastards Im Still Here named after a quote from the film.

A parody of Papillon, Farfallon is a 1974 Italian comedy film directed by Riccardo Pazzaglia.


6. 2017 film

Another film based on the autobiographies of Charriere and the 1973 film, also called Papillon, was released in 2017, directed by Danish director Michael Noer. Charlie Hunnam played the lead role of Henri Charriere, while Rami Malek played Louis Dega. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017.