As the 1970s progressed, Steve McQueen became increasingly bored by the whole process of screen acting and his output eventually slowed to less than a film a year. In Papillon, released in 1973, he took a huge central part in a major studio project and if the experience exhausted him then it’s hardly surprising. As Henri Charriere, the ‘Papillon’ of the title who was allegedly framed for murder and imprisoned in French Guyana, McQueen appears in virtually every scene and is the emotional centre of the film. In many respects, it’s his best performance and he rises effortlessly above the many flaws of the picture.
The film is based on Charriere’s bestselling memoirs which he wrote thirty years after his time in prison. It’s generally agreed that he hyped up his story to make it more commercial but the book remains a vivid and exciting portrait of a man who refused to submit to confinement. It’s highly episodic and more than a little self-mythologising but it has many of the elements required for a good trashy read. Charriere made, according to his own account, nine escape attempts in thirteen years and, after finally escaping, returned to his life of crime and only resorted to writing after a 1967 earthquake put paid to his dreams of developing a nightclub empire in Caracas. He died in 1973 shortly before the film was released. All accounts of Charriere make him sound like an irresistible character, what we might call a ‘wide boy’. Unfortunately, the film decides to turn him into a noble innocent, persecuted by the forces of French imperialist oppression and determined to keep a free spirit in the midst of confinement.
In other words, you might say that the film has a fatal attack of solemnity. It’s all frightfully serious and downbeat, almost in defiance of material which cries out to be made either rivetingly suspenseful or trashily entertaining. There’s a great adventure movie hiding inside this very respectable two and a half hour trudge through various escape scenarios. But this film, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr, is scaled to be an event, far more important than a mere adventure movie. It wants to be the adventure movie, straining for some kind of ultimate significance. As a consequence, it doesn’t feel the need to keep the narrative clear and explain the whys and wherefores of what Charriere is doing at any given moment during the final hour. The plot also lacks basic logic. Charriere’s escape attempts are underwritten by counterfeiter Louis Degas, played in thick pebble-glasses by Dustin Hoffman, in return for protection against aggressors. But when Charriere ends up in solitary confinement for two years, Degas not only seems to have been in no danger but actually flourishes and is able, until they are detected, to send his friend coconuts in his water barrel. Apparently, we are told, Degas has made some financial arrangement with the warden while also making arrangements with the French government to have his sentence cut. Meanwhile, all this time, he’s stumping up thousands of francs, secreted up his rectum, to pay for Charriere’s numerous escape attempts. This leads to a key question that the film never bothers to explain. How much money has he got shoved up his arse for crying out loud? The only explanations are that either he’s got money coming in to him in prison or that he’s got extra supplies stored away elsewhere – but if either of these are the case then why push it up his backside in the first place?
Franklin J. Schaffner made his name with excellent, intelligent films like The Best Man and Planet of the Apes, both fast-moving and witty works in the best Hollywood tradition. Then he made Patton, a three hour epic which didn’t tell us a great deal about Patton or World War Two but contained a performance of such brilliance by George C. Scott that the surrounding vagueness didn’t really matter. Patton won a number of awards and seems to have set Schaffner off on the wrong path. His subsequent films become increasingly slow-moving and static and Papillon is no exception. His skill with big crowd scenes and action set-pieces doesn’t extend to in-depth character study and he can’t seem to evoke the sweaty desperation or blackly comic absurdity of life in the penal colony. He’s not skilled at comedy either, so there’s barely any light relief. Some comic flourishes just about survive thanks to Dustin Hoffman’s quirky delivery of his dialogue, but Hoffman isn’t at his best here and he seems to use the glasses as a crutch to hang his performance on. There’s not much sense to many of his actions and the film just glides by him towards the end when you expect to see him without a leg but he is apparently able to walk very well. His manic chattering during the last half hour is diverting but seems like the last refuge of a script which can’t find any kind of natural ending and simply seems to dribble away. The other actors barely have enough time to come across and it’s only when you get a strong performer like the strong-voiced Anthony Zerbe (as the leader of a leper colony) that the film seems to be populated by anyone other than the two central characters. As if recognising this, Schaffner relies on Jerry Goldsmith’s score to paper over the cracks. Another sure sign of desperation are the occasional bits of gloating violence – a decapitated head splashing blood on the lens, a close-up of a gunshot wound to the head, various stabbings of one kind or another.
Yet Papillon remains worth seeing for Steve McQueen. Although not a great actor, McQueen was a great star with an unforgettable presence and in Papillon, he surpasses himself. He is incredibly touching as Charriere, turning him into a testament to the power of hope over experience. When, towards the end, he emerges from solitary confinement as a white-haired veteran, too shell-shocked to speak and looking in confusion at a world which he has unwillingly begun to call his home, McQueen is heartbreaking. Perhaps it’s the contrast between the agile, strong body and the confusion and sadness in the eyes. Whatever the reason, McQueen is the focus for the viewer and he carries you through a film which is otherwise tedious and confused.
Warners released Papillon back in late 1999 on a disc which was reasonably well received. The disc has been repackaged to appear in the Essential Steve McQueen boxset
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s not particularly good and flaws evident in the original release have not been corrected. The colours are generally weak and there is considerable artifacting. Detail varies from scene to scene, sometimes strong but usually average at best. Worst of all are the much-discussed blue lines which flicker onto the screen during the second hour and recur occasionally later on. These are very irksome indeed and completely unnecessary. There’s also a lot of aliasing in places. Warners can do a lot better than this when they want to and fans of the film are bound to be disappointed that no new transfer has been offered in this box.
The only soundtrack available is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. This seems to replicate the 4-track stereo presentation which was available on 35MM magnetic prints of the film when it was released. Dialogue is usually spatially placed and the score swells very well indeed. Otherwise, the soundtrack doesn’t have much to recommend it and the dialogue is sometimes a little muffled.
The extras are limited to the original trailer – very pompous indeed – and a brief featurette called “The Magnificent Rebel”. This is interesting for featuring the real Henri Charriere amidst a host of self-serving comments from Schaffner and Hoffman. Steve McQueen, wisely, stays silent throughout.
The key problem with Papillon can be identified from the box’s boast that it is “The Greatest Adventure of Escape Ever Filmed”. It so wants to live up to this tag and be a serious event picture that it forgets to be entertaining. However, Steve McQueen is so good that he makes it worth seeing all on his own. The DVD is disappointing and could have been a lot better.