A semi-fictional account of Henri Charrière's time in the penal system in French Guyana - some of it spent on infamous Devil's Island - is presented. It's the early 1930s. Charrière - nicknamed Papillon because of his butterfly tattoo - and Louis Dega are two among many who have been convicted in the French judicial system, they now being transferred to French Guyana where they will serve their time, never to return to France even if they are ever released. A safe-cracker by criminal profession, Papillon is serving a life sentence for murdering a pimp, a crime for which he adamantly states he was framed. Dega is a wealthy counterfeiter, who expects his well-to-do wife eventually to get him released. On Papillon's initiative, Papillon and Dega enter into a business arrangement: Papillon will provide protection for Dega, while Dega will finance Papillon's escape attempt. As Papillon and Degas' time together lasts longer than either expects, their burgeoning friendship ends up being an ... 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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