Based on the book by Henri Charriere.
Version: 1973; starring Steve McQueen; Duston Hoffman
Genre: adventure; survival; based on true story.
Plot Summary: In the 1930’s, two convicted criminals are sentenced to life imprisonment and arrive in the French penal colony of Guiana where they soon forge an enduring friendship through the many years, adventures, and tortures to follow.
My Review: Disclaimer*: I have not read the original book, so this review will not by comparing it to that novel. Only as a story in and of itself, totally unrelated to the book.
This was a story I did not know I needed to know about. I had never heard of the book, or of the movie, and it was not until writing this review that I learned of a new remake starring Charlie Hunnam in McQueen’s role. There’s always some room for tales of imprisonment and escape in my strange soul, so when I happened across this older movie it did not wait long on my watch list.
This is nearly a three hour film. The pace is slow and mostly quiet, as to be expected when your hero spends 5+ years in solitary confinement. Don’t worry, it’s not as painstaking to watch as it sounds! Henri Charriere, wrongly accused (as far as we trust our main character’s POV) of murder spends all of his time from the very first minute scheming his way out of captivity. We, the viewers, are right along with him each step of the way. The time and detail it takes for these real life persons to plan an escape which their very life and sanity depend on is suspenseful and has us glued to the story instead of watching the clock. Our emotions are invested into the very human characters we watch who try so hard to live.
If you’re looking for a clean flick, this isn’t going to be for you. Death, starvation, and madness are the order of the day. Men are killed as a matter of course, and sometimes there is quite grisly detail. In an atmosphere such as this, it would be unrealistic for the script not to include swear words. So of course, that factors liberally into the movie as well. One prison guard has a hankering after one of the prisoners and wants to sexually abuse him. The prisoner appears to go along with it for a time, but only as a means of eventual escape. It is common for the inmates to smuggle their belongings in places where the sun doesn’t shine. If I remember correctly, there may have been a brief scene of backside (prison context) nudity. What actually bothered me more than that was an island setting in which all the tribeswomen wore nothing at all and we see full frontal nudity.
Despite all of this, I came away doing a lot of thinking about this movie. The thing that stood out the most to me was comparing the two main characters: Henry Charriere (or, “Papillon”) and his friend Louis Dega who was sent to Guiana for forgery. Their friendship is begun for survival’s sake. Papillon can easily handle himself in any situation, with quick wits to boot but not much clout among other prisoners or guards. Dega on the other hand, is physically undersized with round glasses that couldn’t possibly get any thicker which produces a wrong-end-of-the-magnifying-glass-effect when we look at him. However, his secret weapon is literally the stash of cash he sits on and he is able to bribe for opportunities. In one of the most touching parts of the story, Papillon risks his life to protect Dega when he is being beaten. This action lands him longlasting consequences. It brings Dega to tears to think that an innocent man would be willing to put his life in jeopardy for him, who is justly convicted of his crime. It made me think of Jesus, the innocent lamb who was slain for us, the real sinners. It was an eloquent portrait of biblical truth.
Eventually, through many trials and hardships, the two men are brought together once again where they have to face a decision: remain in captivity, or attempt escape (quite possibly ending in death or worse, recapture). It is rather pitiful the situation they are in, yet in some ways it could have been worse. Will Papillon be content to live the remainder of his years on Devil’s Island where he could live in comparative peace? Or will he convince Dega to risk the dangers of escape and perhaps be able to attain true freedom once again?
SPOILER ALERT: Papillon never once abandons his idea of the pursuit of freedom. I believe giving up his busy mind over this matter would have consigned him to insanity. Dega on the other hand, was never strong of body or mind. He found a little piece of joy right where he was and made it into his own. He had nothing left to go back to. Was one view right and the other wrong? I don’t think so. Two different temperaments, different personalities, with different limitations. Each did what they could with what they had and what they were made for. This, of course, is taking the question of guilt out of the equation. END OF SPOILER.
I know this film will not be for everyone. But I found some redeeming aspects of it that I encourage anyone so inclined to give it a try. I am looking forward to seeing a newer version, but Steve McQueen was very good in his role, and Dustin Hoffman provided some comic relief.