Film Spotlight: Papillon

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.

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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.

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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 StingSerpico, 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!

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“Blame is for God and small children.” – Dega

9 thoughts on “Film Spotlight: Papillon

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  1. A classic – two great actors. Many memorable scenes.
    This film spurred me to read both of his autobiographies.
    Incredible and shocking what some people have to go through in this world.
    Most any movie that McQueen made was good – or excellent – some are Classics – in different genres. (wish I could say the same for Dustin)
    You are correct Cindy in your assessment that Papillon is certainly as Classic and re-watchable as The Sting and Serpico – though all are great films.
    It’s worth noting however, that the film that wins Best Picture does not always become a Classic. In fact, I would dare say that most of them don’t.

    1. Yes, you bring up an important point. Awards and enduring popularity/art (definition of a classic?)do not go hand-in-hand. Your Westerns you blog about are a good example. Steve McQueen was a fine actor, but I think Dustin is a better one. He’s one of those who can morph into someone else. To see this dynamic duo together was a cinematic treat!

  2. Hi, Cindy:

    Great choice!

    Steve McQueen gives very possibly his most un-Steve McQueen performance opposite an unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman in ‘Papillon’.

    Is the film character driven? Yes. In the all the best ways.
    Does it tell a story well? Absolutely! While highlighting many of man’s best qualities.
    Are the talents equally matched? Hoffman has an edge, though McQueen is a perfect counter balance who doesn’t back down.

    An all around great and memorable effort and film!

    1. Couldn’t have said it better myself; oh, yes, you are correct–twas Lee Marvin and not Coburn in Dirty Dozen. I have a tendency to group those two together. Just like those who clump McQueen and Newman. All four deserve separate recognition. Spent a lot of my childhood watching those four!

  3. Great post Cindy. I’m a big fan of Papillon. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, though. If truth be told I had completely forgotten about the film. Thanks for the reminder.

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