Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Papillon (1973) - ★★★★★

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writers: Henry Charriere (Book), Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Screenplay)
Stars: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Deman, Don Gordan, Anthony Zerbe, Woodrow Parfrey, Bill Mumy

Papillon is definitely one of the greatest movies of all time. Not only is it Steve McQueen's greatest performance, but it's also one of Dustin Hoffman's most diverse and effective roles. It's an inspiring, thrilling, sad, beautiful, and cringe-filled masterpiece that never once lost my interest. I just found everything in it to be so perfect; from the gorgeous music composed by Jerry Goldsmith, to the little details like the prisoner's progressively decaying teeth. I'd rank it up there with the very best of cinema, and it's easily in my Top 10 most underrated films of all time.

Henri "Papillon" Charriere (Steve McQueen) is unjustly convicted for murdering a pimp in 1930s France. He is sentenced to life imprisonment in the notorious French penal colony on Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana. En route he meets a fellow convict, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a counterfeiter and embezzler who is convinced that his wife will secure his release. Dega hires Papillon as his bodyguard, but the two eventually develop a friendship. Papillon only has one thing on his mind, which is to escape to freedom. 

Steve McQueen is known for his iconic role in The Great Escape (1963). I love that movie, but Papillon will be the film I'll always remember him for. His performance in this was unbelievably powerful. McQueen's talents really shine when Papillon is forced to live in a dark cell with very little food to survive. You see this man fighting a battle to keep his mind occupied and stop himself going insane. He's forced to live on cockroaches, centipedes, whatever he can find so that he has the sustenance to build strength and energy. You can see madness creep into the eyes of Papillon, slowly but surely he gets broken down so that he gives up valuable information. Words cannot describe how fantastic Steve McQueen's performance was. 

Dustin Hoffman gave one hell of a performance too. He played a more fragile, emotional person than Papillon. I loved the way Hoffman could make tears well up in his eyes, and show such an ecstatic joy at times. In the end, he did a fantastic job at playing a tragically insane, broken man. It's one of my personal favorite roles he's played. 

My favorite character of all, and a performance I will never forget, came from Robert Deman. He played a highly skilled, wonderful homosexual named Andre. His character was constantly sexually abused by a disgusting, foul prisoner who was higher on the pecking order than himself. When Papillon asks him to keep the guard busy for his escape, Andre decides to escape with him. I felt so sorry for this man, but I had so much respect for him too. He went through hell, saved Papillon and Dega, and was such a stand-up guy! It was pretty cool to see a homosexual portrayed with such a manly, talented character... considering this movie was made in 1973. 

Robert Deman was absolutely brilliant in such a complex role.
The actual escape scenes made my heart beat rapidly, something most action movies can't do. It was choreographed, acted, and filmed in such a way that I felt like I was escaping with them. The cinematography throughout Papillon can only be described as 'perfect'. The scenes of solitary confinement made me feel claustrophobic, while the scenes between Papillon and Dega had me very emotional. I love it when camerawork (and acting) can make you feel the way the characters feel. I also must mention that the music by Jerry Goldsmith is absolutely gorgeous. It's one of my favorite movie themes of all time. 

I don't know what else to say really. Papillon just had an immense effect on me. Hopefully it will become more appreciated in future, the way films like The Godfather are. It will always have a place on my list of "Greatest Movies of All Time." 


  1. I watched the film tonight for the first time and it was great. I totally agree about Robert Deman as Andre Maturette. The guy was brilliant on screen. However I cannot find any info or full biography about him. Have you any links or info about him? Thanks anyway.

    1. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to know that someone else really appreciated his character and performance. I do not know much about him, sorry.

  2. Great review. I saw Papillon in cinema on release and it has stayed with me ever since. Not many movies have that effect on me. The long running time echoes the stark incarceration, and the the 2 lead performances are fabulous. The underscore is hope and freedom versus a lifetime of being broken by the system.
    A very underrated film.

  3. Criminally underrated,fully agree with the way it makes you feel,when he goes to the leper collany is a great scene also.just one thing he didn't give up any information when he was confined he ate the paper with degas name on so he couldn't tell the warden he had forgotten his name.definitely a top five film of all time.great review