This unrelenting film was made by Franklin J Schaffner from Henri Charrière’s autobiographical account of life in (and escape from) the penal colony on Devil’s Island, French Guyana, South America.
Steve McQueen played the title role as a French safe-cracker imprisoned there for a murder he did not commit (who acquired the nickname ‘Papillon‘ thanks to the butterfly tattooed on his chest). Dustin Hoffman played weedy accountant and counterfeiter Dega – a fellow convict with whom he forms a bond.
During their passage to South America from France, Dega fears for his life. He has a small fortune in cash concealed in his own back passage and has good reason to fear he’ll be butchered for the money.
Papillon makes a deal with Dega – he’ll protect him and in return, Dega will finance his escape.
On their arrival in the colony, the two prisoners are assigned to work in the swamps. After Papillon prevents a warder from beating his friend to death, Dega feels deeply indebted to the hard-bitten jailbird. But ‘Papi’s’ hasty escape attempt ends in failure and – quickly recaptured – he is sentenced to two years in solitary confinement.
Even in his isolation, however, he still retains tenuous contact with Dega. The accountant has bribed his way into a more pleasant job in prison administration, and he provides Papillon with a secret supply of coconuts – an essential supplement to the foul prison rations, which barely ensure survival.
When this illegal food bonus is discovered, Papillon’s punishment is draconian – he is placed on half-rations and confined for years to a darkened cell. Yet he still holds his tongue and refuses to betray Dega.
Years later, the two meet once again in the prison colony. On Papillon’s next escape attempt, Dega will accompany him.
Director Franklin J Schaffner accomplishes a delicate balancing act, combining a realistic portrayal of monstrous prison conditions with some very funny moments. When Dega and ‘Papi’ are sent off to retrieve a shot crocodile from the swamp, we witness a slapstick scene when it turns out that the beast is still far from dead.
Even their escape constitutes a kind of comic relief. While the prison orchestra plays marching tunes for the ladies and gents of the French colony, the two escapees struggle like Keystone Cops to scale a very high wall.
The film derives its power from many unforgettable moments that demonstrate the lead character’s impressive will to survive. We see him stave off starvation in his darkened cell by catching centipedes and roaches, taking a puff from the cigar of a leper who could help him escape from the island, and leaping into the sea from the cliff-tops – a tiny figure against a huge background; an individual victorious against an inhuman, implacable system.
Franklin J Schaffner