Set aside the fact that Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman play Frenchmen without even a trace of an accent, and Papillon proves a compelling and often thrilling 1930s-set prison saga, one in which its star—following in the footsteps of his prior hit The Great Escape—attempts to break out of confinement. In this case, that involves McQueen’s safecracker Henri “Papillon” Charrière, serving life for a pimp’s murder he didn’t commit, enlisting the help of master forger Louis Dega (Hoffman) in order to vacate his penitentiary home on the island of French Guiana. Based on Charrière’s autobiography, Franklin J. Schaffner’s film is an epic about the tenacity of Papillon’s spirit, as his story soon proves to be one of attrition, with an initial scuffle in defense of Dega—and subsequent breakout failure—landing him in solitary for two years, and a later attempt resulting in only more arduous hardship.
Working from Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script, in which dialogue is kept to a minimum so that the pervasive silence comes to seem like another form of punishment, Schaffner routinely visualizes his characters as small, insignificant figures amid enormous, imposing landscapes and structures. At 150 minutes, Papillon can, at times, feel a bit distended, but its run time functions as another effective means of conveying the decades-long ordeal of its protagonist, whom McQueen embodies with a mixture of dogged self-interest and genuine compassion for the few comrades willing to sacrifice on his behalf. While Hoffman’s nasally turn frequently veers into actorly mannerisms, the star complicates Dega’s cold rationalism with an undercurrent of tenderness for Papillon. There’s an emotional power to the final scenes, especially a late leap from a towering cliff—a sight that confirms both the bravery of the character and, given McQueen performed the stunt himself, the unimpeachable coolness of the actor playing him.
Availability: Papillon is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.