Papillon Review

Despite depicting the beauty of the gorgeous surroundings of French Guyana, South America, Papillon is one of the most brutally pounding prison films to have ever been made. The visual experience of watching the film is so mentally draining that upon its conclusion you feel as if you were in fact the prisoner.

Based on the Henri Charrière novel, Papillon is in fact based on true events; its author Charrière basing the novel on his own experiences having successfully escaped the torturous Devils Island work-camp after initially serving a sentence in the French penal colony of French Guyana. Charrière ironically died of throat-cancer the year (1973) the film was released, a death that seemed anti-climatic considering he survived thirteen years of sadistic torture whilst carrying out his prison sentence. The film starred Steve McQueen in what was (if you discount The Towering Inferno) arguably his last great role. Dustin Hoffman also starred in the film, and his performance easily matches that of McQueen's. The director was Franklin J. Schaffner, a man who during the period of 1967 to 1973 had turned in three world class efforts in the form of Planet Of The Apes, Patton and Papillon.

Set during the thirties, the film tells of Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen), a man nicknamed 'Papillon' due to the large butterfly tattooed onto his chest. Papillon claims he is innocent of murdering a pimp, but the prosecution doesn't think so, and so he is shipped to a penal colony in French Guyana to serve his sentence. After that, he will be forced to serve the sentence again working as a worker/colonist on Devil's Island. No-one escapes from the penal colony, and new inmates are told that a failed escape attempt will result in two years in solitary, and five years more if a reoccurrence happens. This doesn't deter Papillon, who plots his escape the minute his sentence begins. Meanwhile, another inmate, famous counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), has finally been been caught and convicted, and is worried that he is resented by his fellow prisoners due to his wealth and due to the fact that many of the prisoners lost their money on Dega's counterfeit bonds. Therefore, Dega strikes a deal with Papillon - in exchange for Papillon guaranteeing Dega's safety; Dega will underwrite any escape attempt Papillon plans to carry out. Set over many years, Papillon is a ferocious study of a man's inner-character whilst struggling to survive in an unflinching prison society.

Papillon is a rare treat for the prison genre of filmmaking, in that it is one of the most naturally stunning films to look at. Rather than bleak and dark tones that are usually littered over prison genre efforts, Papillon features gorgeous blue skies and lush cinematography from Fred J. Koenekamp, and this is such a refreshing change, and greatly enhances the film. You only have to look at Schaffner's previous films to see evidence that the director is an expert at utilising natural locations effectively. The two central performances from McQueen and Hoffman are masterful, and both were robbed of Oscar nominations. McQueen presents Papillon as an integrity-filled yet casual heavy who seems fuelled by the dreams of the escape. Papillon knows he is innocent, but knows it's futile to fight his case, unlike Dega, who seems less inclined to escape and more inclined to be sucked into the institutionalised regime of the prison inmates. Hoffman provides fantastic comic relief in the form of Dega, he is the natural counter to Papillon, and yet the two create an unlikely friendship sparked by mutual gain. Although he only appears briefly, Anthony Zerbe (Matthias in The Omega Man) has a fine supporting turn as the Toussaint leper colony chief, and this character essentially encapsulates the film's subversion of all its stereotypical conventions. Papillon presents prisoners, homosexuals, native Indians and lepers in a positive light, which deserves praise, even if prison guards and nuns are deliberately shown as twisted and sadistic at every turn.

The musical score by frequent Franklin Schaffner collaborator Jerry Goldsmith is dazzling in its natural, poetic melodies and was deservedly Oscar nominated. Goldsmith brands the film with a sense of calmness and eloquence, which coupled with the vivid cinematography helps to nicely contrast with the film's exceptionally gritty subject matter.

Papillon is still however Franklin J. Schaffner's film, and the director has proved on countless occasions that he is adept at balancing ultra-serious bleakness with a comic sensibility and startling beauty. There are times when the film is extremely funny; you'll laugh when Papillon and Dega are ordered to wrestle with a live Crocodile, not because it's funny but because you'd rather it was them and not you. There are also times when the film is simply unbearable to watch, and is both disgusting and viciously gory. Papillon is an early seventies epic that depressingly suggests nearly twenty years later that films are not made in that tradition anymore. Despite this, there is simply no reason why the film deserves to not be watched by everyone, as it is a dazzling example of powerful, adult filmmaking at its finest.

Academy Awards 1973

Academy Award Nominations 1973
Best Original Score - Jerry Goldsmith

Throughout the most part, the picture is very good indeed. Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen (despite the packaging stating 1.85:1), the picture exhibits fine colourful tones with wonderfully sharp images, although on occasions grain, dirt and artefacts can be detected. Considering all VHS versions were grainy pan-and-scan editions, the vast framing by Franklin J. Schaffner will delight fans of the film who are seeing Papillon in widescreen for the first time.

Presented in a remixed 5.1 sound track, the sound elements are given more space to breath over five channels compared to the film's original mono mix but on occasions dialogue sounds muffled and background elements such as rain are too overbearing. Jerry Goldsmith's score sounds tremendous in stereo format for the first time, and on the whole the track is mostly 2.0 stereo with slight rear channels events.

Menu: A silent, static menu incorporating promotional artwork from the film.

Packaging: The usual standard Columbia Tristar release, with amaray packaging and a four-page insert that contains publicity stills and chapter listings. The cover artwork is different and slightly better than the Region 1 release.


'Magnificent Rebel' Featurette: This is a twelve minute 1973 featurette that has been splendidly remastered. The featurette is very interesting to watch and covers much ground over its short duration. Firstly, it is interesting to note that the real-life Henri Charrière watched over proceedings of the making of the film and offered much needed technical advice. Interviews from the main cast and crew are also featured. Presented in fullscreen.

Original Trailer: The film's original 1973 trailer, which tries its hardest to capitalise on McQueen's previous prison film The Great Escape. The trailer is very long at four minutes and presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen.

Jerry Goldsmith's Isolated Score: A marvellous extra, in that the viewer has the option to watch the film with nothing but the sound of Jerry Goldsmith's fine original score.

Talent Profiles: Brief talent profiles and selected filmographies of Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman and the director Franklin J. Schaffner. Presented as text on screen.


A classic epic of the early seventies, given especially good picture and sound quality and some sparse but fine extras. Papillon lacks a decent retrospective documentary or commentary, but if you discount these omissions it really is a very good DVD that would complement any collection.

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Last updated: 15/07/2018 04:49:18

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