What’s your favorite prison movie? Franklin J. Schaffner was known as an innovative television director/producer in the early years of T.V. employing film techniques within the new medium of television. He was known in the film industry for popular films like Planet of the Apes (1968), and for Patton (1970). My favorite film of Schaffner’s, also making my top-ten all-time favorite list, and the best prison film (yes, better than Shawshank Redemption), is the one and only classic, Papillon (1973).
Listen to the Oscar nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith. Fantastic.
Of course, almost all great films begin with great novels. Papillon (1969) was written as an autobiographical account by Henri Charrière. In 1931, he was sentenced in Paris for a crime he did not commit and exiled to a penal colony in French Guiana. Over the course of many years, Papillon, named for the butterfly tattooed on his chest, attempted to escape. Eventually he was sent to the inescapable Devil’s Island surrounded by hungry piranhas, sharks, and crocodiles. Henri Charrière’s story is an audacious human story demonstrating what conviction and willpower can do. His published account became an instant success.
Steve McQueen gives arguably his best performance. His relationship with inmate, Dega, played by Dustin Hoffman is dynamic and heartfelt. They both transformed themselves into true characters rarely seen on film. The cinematography is outstanding.
The use of black and white and lack of sound show the solitary confinement of Papillon’s situation perfectly. When Papillon hallucinates, his dreams are horrific and the camera angles portray a true nightmare.
I find it amazing this film was not nominated for anything at the Oscars in 1974 except for Best Score which did not win. What were the contenders that year? The Sting, Serpico, and The Exorcist. Yes, all great films, but, I still think Papillon is just as good. Certainly, Hoffman and McQueen deserved recognition for their roles. A very underrated film!
“Blame is for God and small children.” – Dega