“Blame is for God and small children”
While Henri Charriere‘s account of his incarceration and escape from the penal colony known as French Guiana has a contentious history as far as it being an autobiography or novel of historical fiction, such debate is inconsequential to Franklin J. Schaffner‘s cinematic adaptation Papillon. Whether or not what we see actually happened has no bearing on our enjoyment of its so-called “Greatest Adventure of Escape!” What we watch are the harrowing years of men convicted (falsely or not) of heinous crimes that deserve hard time in prison. Conversations about these places “breaking” their inmates and ultimately serving as desolate wastelands of exile much like the leper colonies nearby are for another time and place. This story is about man’s will to survive, not the efficacy of criminal reformation.
As such, the result is less a document of authenticity as one of excitement and suspense. I’ll be honest: I never cared about Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere (Steve McQueen) or his friend by necessity Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). Maybe the former was framed for killing a pimp and maybe not. He’s willing to slice some guy’s face off now in order to keep his money-ticket to freedom alive—we sure know that much. As for the latter, he’s never one to deny what he did (namely counterfeit government bonds). Their punishment is harsh and the idea of serving your time only to receive a not much better exile for the trouble is definitely enough motivation to want to leave. But we don’t hope for success as much as intrigue.
I think Schaffner (and screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.) are fully aware of this too considering narrative always seems secondary to experience. Do we ever see Papillon and Dega forming a legitimate friendship based on anything but a pact of service? No. Do they ever truly save the other out of empathy? Or is it always because they still need the other alive to continue breathing themself? A notion of brotherly love is so prevalent and yet there isn’t one instance of it manifesting as anything more than a product of proximity. In fact, most of their time is spent apart thanks to Papillon’s years of solitary confinement. The invasive score and heartfelt smiles may project some form of love between them, but actions rarely do.
Actions instead propel the adventure from one tragic misstep to another. They force us to question Papillon’s physical and mental fortitude once confined to a dark box for a fifth of the film’s lengthy runtime. (One escape attempt gets you two additional years of solitary, a second gets you another additional five, and a third earns the guillotine.) If Charriere’s name as author and Papillon as title didn’t already give it away, this tale is really all about him. It’s about this supposedly innocent man’s desperation and endurance, his loyalty and perseverance. Dega and the other men who help in his plans for escape (Woodrow Parfrey‘s Clusiot and Robert Deman‘s Maturette) are merely supporting characters with something he needs or simply bodies to be sacrificed along the way.
We unfortunately don’t spend enough time with any of them to think otherwise. Dega is present a lot, but mostly as a pawn to be used to bribe guards or slow everyone else down thanks to a fateful ankle injury when victory appears possible. Sometimes Papillon won’t do anything without his little buddy by his side and others it’s “every man for himself” regardless of the consequences. This means that we must inherently question his motivations whenever doing something that could be construed as charitable. We begin to wonder when the other shoe will drop and he’ll cut the dead weight loose. Any moment of true selflessness therefore starts to come into focus as the selfish actions of a prideful man afraid to tarnish his tough guy reputation.
The film is thus a story of attrition—an existential test of man’s strength against all odds in an embellished Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man Alive” kind of way wherein one prisoner finds himself in the hole, plotting an elaborate (bloodless) escape, shot with the poison darts of Honduran natives, tattooing an indigenous elder’s chest, extorting nuns, and making coconut flotation devices to brave a choppy ocean no one has ever survived. It goes beyond “so crazy it must be true” straight towards folklore legend status. So it’s no surprise that the book was an instant bestseller currently published in more than twenty languages. Even the film’s two-and-a-half hours move briskly when suspension of disbelief proves its plot’s thesis. “How’s he getting out of this one? Let’s see.”
McQueen is therefore the perfect Hollywood stand-in, a man’s man the women can swoon over and the men can fantasize about becoming. Even Dega—who’s often rendered the non-confrontational thinker that believes he’s smarter than he is—seems to only be heroic when trying to mimic his buddy’s fearless tactics. Hoffman plays it beautifully with mouth-breathing cluelessness and faulty optimism. He’s the coward to Papillon’s Adonis. He’s the stereotypical “nice guy” who finishes last with Henri filling the role of star quarterback, both attempting to woo their potential lover: freedom. Sadly for both, this abstract concept would rather watch them trip over themselves than choose one. And frankly we would too considering that’s where the “fun” lies. Neither brawn nor brains stand a chance against France’s penal system.
Papillon is as fascinating an adventure as any series of events holding dire consequences. It seems impossible because it possesses a never-ending string of hazards to combat (guards, lepers, hunters, natives, and sharks to name a few), but the ride never bores even if it holds us at arm’s length. The locations lend a sense of realism with Spain, Jamaica, and even Hawaii standing in for Guiana and Devil’s Island. Some fantasy sequences courtesy of malnourishment hit better than anticipated. And our hope Papillon and Dega end up an old married couple (either stuck there or free somewhere else) is forever bolstered by their expressive (yet unearned) reunions. Watch for the lengths they’ll go to live rather than them as worthy of living and you’ll walk away entertained.