Steve McQueenBill MumyDustin HoffmanGeorge Coulouris
Medium: film
Year: 1973
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writer: Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr., Henri Charriere
Actor: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Deman, Woodrow Parfrey, Bill Mumy, George Coulouris, Ratna Assan, William Smithers, Val Avery, Gregory Sierra
Keywords: Oscar-nominated
Country: USA, France
Format: 150 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 27 August 2008
I bought this because of Quint's Movie A Day column at Ain't It Cool. I like Steve McQueen and I like 1970s cinema.
What I hadn't known is that Papillon is based on the autobiography of one Henri Charriere, who was imprisoned at the Devil's Island Penal Colony in French Guiana in South America. (I assumed it was Africa.) The original book covers 1931-45, although I've no idea how faithfully the movie sticks to that. The French had penal settlements there for a century until 1951 so I suppose that makes this a period film, but it's done with so much gleeful seventies energy that it's hard to think of it as anything but contemporary to whenever it was made. 1973 is so long ago that I wouldn't have a clue anyway. The pith helmets are a bit Gandhi, I suppose. The transport ship could have sailed any time since the Titanic. However the eye-popping sight of Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman jumping on a live crocodile tends to dispel thoughts of "What year is this?" in favour of "How the hell did they film that?" and "Are they crazy?"
I'd been expecting a prison break film, as bloody, nasty and enjoyable as you'd assume from the 1970s. What I hadn't expected was for it to look this gorgeous. French Guiana has snakes, vampire bats and that aforementioned pissed-off crocodile. It has swamps. Late on in the film, it even has topless native girls. This is a world full of atmosphere and colour. What's more, even the solitary confinement and ugly shipboard passage are shot dynamically. You'd hate to be there, but it's always exciting to look at.
My only concern had been at the two-and-a-half hours running time, which was apparently a sticking point for contemporary critics. The fact that it's a prison movie didn't help either. "I'm going to escape," said McQueen at the beginning. "Oh no, you're not," I said to myself, heart sinking at the prospect of a hundred escape attempts. However to my surprise, the film moves like a bullet and has no escape attempts that aren't important to the story. I was astonished by a few of the plot developments, which is always nice.
There's even one section of the film that I'd swear was an inspiration for Indiana Jones. Lethal booby traps in the jungle, natives with poison darts, etc. McQueen even wears Indy's hat, although he's less heroic, of course.
Naturally the main characters go through huge changes as they and the system do their damnedest to break each other. No one's the same at the end as they were at the beginning, which brings us to the acting. Everyone's good. I could mention supporting players like Bill Mumy, best known to me as Lennier in Babylon 5 but previously a hugely renowned child actor, thanks to The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and of course Lost in Space. However this is a two-man show and if Dustin Hoffman hadn't been as good as he is, then even he wouldn't have registered.
Hoffman is note-perfect, of course. During the film's early scenes he's even more magnetic than McQueen, despite playing the role in milk-bottle glasses and is saying nothing and doing nothing. He gets his character's journey exactly right, but he's only the supporting actor. One hell of a support, of course, but McQueen's the main attraction. He's onscreen almost throughout, almost throwing himself at every challenge in his way. I'm talking about both the character and the actor, incidentally. I can't say I believed McQueen in the film's last twenty minutes or so, but damn he was fun anyway. It's no holds barred, hell for leather stuff. He's playing a hard man, a criminal who can take everything the world has to throw at him and ask for more, but nonetheless he's asked to go to some fairly extreme emotional places and boy, does he go for it. He can do macho, but he can also overact so fearlessly as to make me laugh and applaud the television.
I'd been expecting this to be more gruesome. It's certainly brutal enough, but realistically rather than as exploitation. Nevertheless avoid this film if you can't bear to watch guards shooting prisoners in the head, self-mutilation to get sent to hospital and of all ghastly things a guillotine.
I also like the way they handle the Frenchness, which is to ignore it. The props and signs all look correct, but no one's Clouseau-ing it up and instead everyone's using their own voice. You thus get a mish-mash of British and American accents which I thought was rather clever. It helps the naturalism of the performances.
This is a forceful film that doesn't relax for a minute of its runtime, although I'm still trying to decide exactly where it should have ended. There's a voiceover with a postscript. It's only two sentences, but I'm not sure we needed them. However that aside, I don't have a single complaint about this film. Hell, it's worth watching just to see a Hollywood star throw caution to the winds as thoroughly as McQueen does. You'll know the scenes I'm talking about. This isn't the best prison film I've seen, but that's only because there are some real barnstormers out there. It's tense, it's bloody and it takes its story further than most due to the autobiographical element. These things tend to be more of a comic book. Oh, and it looks an absolute treat.