Henri "Papillon" Charierre is sentenced to life in prison and transported to the penal in French Guyana. Aboard ship on the voyage over, he meets Louis Dega, a forger. They form a bond that will last them a great many years. The conditions at the penal colony are horrific and Papillon desperately wants to escape. His first attempt ends quickly in failure and as a result he spends 2 years in solitary confinement. His next attempt is somewhat more successful and he actually spends a idyllic time with a tribe of Central America Indians. Once caught however, he does 5 years in solitary confinement. Once released, he decides to make one final attempt at freedom. Written by
An amazing true story gets a pretty good film treatment.
The true story of Henri Charriere (nicknamed "Papillon" because of his butterfly tattooed chest), a Frenchman falsely accused of murder and sent to French Guiana's inescapable penal colony. Charriere spent years trying to escape from this mosquito-ridden, malaria-prone hellhole, but every attempt somehow went awry. On many occasions, the recaptured Charriere was sent into solitary confinement and only survived thanks to his incredible mental strength. Ultimately, the authorities lost hope of taming his urge to break out, so they abandoned him on Devil's Island, a tiny land mass where guards were not needed since the constantly ferocious surrounding sea was ample deterent for any would-be escapees.
Franklin J. Schaffner directs this film quite well, capturing the appalling prison conditions vividly and getting a wonderful, multi-layered performance from Dustin Hoffman as Charriere's friend, convict Louis Dega. However, McQueen struggles with the demands of the lead role. Yes, he's physically accurate in the part and during the escape sequences he looks convincing. However, during the quieter moments, McQueen looks distinctly uncomfortable, and his natural "cool" persona doesn't equate with the humiliated, tormented character he is supposed to be playing. The subsidiary characters are great, especially the guy with the tattooed face who attributes his ugly tattoos to an evening of drunkeness, and Anthony Zerbe as a grossly disfigured leper who asks Papillon to share a cigar with him.
Best sequence? Probably the one where McQueen and another escapee flee through the rainforest from some soldiers, using natural jungle-based narcotics to preserve their energy levels.
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