Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Papillon (1973)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writers:  Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr. , Henri Charriere
Cast:       Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory

A man befriends a fellow criminal as the two of them begin serving their sentence on a dreadful prison island, which inspires the man to plot his escape. Steve McQueen plays the role of Papillon, who is hell-bent on escaping, and Dustin Hoffman plays the role of Dega, a counterfeiter, who can underwrite their escape.

Film hinges on extremely physical performances from its two leads who got equal billing even though one of them plays the titular character but McQueen did insist on getting his name first in the same row. Steve McQueen, style-icon from the 60s, must have been in the waning period of his career but this film came immediately after his role in 'The Getaway'. It is indeed considered as his final great role and for him, the role of Papillon is very much against type. Dustin Hoffman as Dega is very funny in his typical dry manner. The first half of the film depicts the hell like life in prison which makes their plan to escape nothing but a logical next step. We don't get much insight into the backstory of the characters and I never felt that it was necessary. Hoffman's character is all about survival while Papillon wants freedom to live in the 'Civilized' world. After the escape to Honduras, he lives among tribal people with a wife and all that but he again flees from there to reach the mainland but gets himself caught again. We don't get many films that deals with colonial horror from Hollywood and this one is  one such even though it is seen through the eyes of a white convict. They are supposed to serve their time in the prison after which they are expected to serve equal amount of time as a Colonist in a remote island. 

Overall it is a very good watch with excellent performances from its leads. It is close to 150 minutes long and that length is necessary to make us really feel and relate to their ordeal. It does go a bit surreal during the sequence in Honduras making us wonder where it is going, but you have to admire the bureaucratic capabilities of Colonial empires as Papillon ends up back in the same prison after his capture in Honduras. The manner of cruelty by the prison authority is done in an impersonal matter of fact way which is preferable to some silly vendetta like portrayal.  The title for the film comes from the French word for butterfly.

Rating: 3.5/5