Friday, November 18, 2011

I Fought the Law

Film: Papillon
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

It’s always interesting to go back to a movie you haven’t seen in awhile. It’s been years since I’ve seen Papillon, decades even. Yet there are things about this film that I recalled at least in part. I remember, for instance, the guy with the disturbing facial tattoos. I remember the scene in the leper colony. I remember Dustin Hoffman’s glasses, and Steve McQueen’s ruined teeth.

The film is the roughly autobiographical story of Henri “Papillon” Charriere (Steve McQueen), falsely (according to him) accused of killing a pimp and sent to the French penal colony of Guiana. Called “Papillon” because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest, he spends his time in the hellish, nightmare conditions of the colony attempting to escape by any means possible. His sentence was life, essentially giving him nothing to lose—although escaping and being caught three times means the guillotine.

On the long boat ride from France, Papillon befriends Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a renowned counterfeiter. Papillon wants some of Dega’s money, and suggests a mutually beneficial arrangement. Dega, figuring that money will be useful in Guiana, has swallowed or otherwise hidden money on his person. Every other prisoner on the ship would happily kill him for his money, so Papillon agrees to protect him in exchange for enough money to purchase a boat in Guiana.

Guiana proves to be as terrible as could be expected, and Papillon’s escape attempts are confounded at every turn, landing him in solitary for two years, and because of food smuggled to him, he spends a great deal of that time on half rations. This only fuels his desire to escape even more, and leads to one of the more interesting extended parts of the film, leading to the guy with the disturbing facial tattoos, the leper colony, and eventual recapture and five more years in solitary.

And still, he wants nothing more than to get away. He ends up on an island considered unescapable, reuniting with Dega, and still convinced that he can escape back to the South American mainland and desperate to get away.

There are any number of things I could suggest that this film is about. It may well be about the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Certainly this is a quality that Papillon exhibits throughout the film. When Dega smuggles him coconuts in solitary, Papillon holds out, never divulging the name of his friend, and survives for months on half rations, and for six months in an almost completely darkened cell.

It may also be about the strength of friendship shared between these two men and several other men—Julot (Don Gordon), Maturette (Robert Deman), and Clusiot (Woodrow Parfrey) in particular. These men frequently make sacrifices, sometimes dangerous sacrifices that may add years onto their sentences, for each other. There is a unique bond of suffering between these mean—they become drawn to each other because of their ordeal.

It’s also entirely possible that this film’s purpose is to act as something like an expose on the prison system and legal system abuse of this sort is far more common. Papillon is granted two years in solitary and six (presumably after using someone else’s fake id), and the conditions that he, Louis, and all of the other men sent to Guiana experience are as terrible and dehumanizing as any prison shown on film.

So which is it? I think it’s all three. Papillon is a big enough film to encompass all of these possibilities and more. McQueen gives a memorable ad the title character, always looking to cut a deal that will put him back on the way to the mainland and his freedom. Hoffman is equally good as Louis, who by the end o the film is is a mental and emotional cripple, a shadow of his former self.

I remember Papillon for the simple fact that it is worth remembering. It doesn’t hurt that Steve McQueen is one of the all-time great film stars and arguably the most relevant for the year in which this was filmed. The relationships between the two men is subtle and touching without getting sappy or maudlin. Despite all of this, Papillon is in many ways a tragedy. And it’s a damn good one.

Why to watch Papillon: A movie about the triumph of one man.
Why not to watch: There's a limit to how much one man can take.


  1. Never seen this one. I wonder how it compares to "Midnight Express."

  2. Favorably. It's been years since I've seen Midnight Express, though, so your mileage may vary. Papillon is less intense, if I recall correctly.

  3. I love both movies but feel papillon edges it somewhat. The music alone is amazing and the location, pacing and overall production far more attention holding the Midnight Express.

  4. I would suggest another theme: individual freedom opposed to consensus conformity. In this way it is related to many westerns and road movies. Prison escape movies are just the most extreme of these

    1. I think that's a likely theme as well. There's no reason we can't have both, after all.