Reflections on “Papillon” (1973)

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.

(based on the book by Henri Charrière)

Starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

Part documentary, part social commentary and part drama, this is an adventure story with a difference. Adapted from the vivid, colourful and gripping autobiography of Henri Charrière, “Papillon” dares to challenge the premise, integrity and merit of the French colonial penal system of the 1930s (French Guiana ceased receiving convicts in 1938 and was closed in 1953).

Papillon (the nickname of Henri Charrière), Louis Dega and their companions are all convicted criminals and are to be dispatched to French Guiana for the duration of their sentences (and double it in some cases) as France, they are told, has washed her hands of them. Papillon insists he is innocent of the murder for which he was condemned, though he does not deny involvement in lesser crimes. Dega is a forger and embezzler. Thus, a major issue and challenge in terms of audience investment in the film is sympathy, or lack of it, for the main characters. The source of interest and key to engagement with the film is not indignation at a miscarriage of justice, but rather an investigation into the conditions and treatment of those incarcerated, the appropriateness of punishment to fit crimes committed, and an examination of effects (both negative and, amazingly, positive) of incarceration and treatment such as those meted out at that time.

From the outset it is made clear that these men have lost more than their freedom as a price for their crimes – they have lost their homes, their families, their country, their dignity, their rights and their futures. The relatively naïve and unworldly Louis Dega desperately tries to hold on to trust in his wife and lawyer to extricate him from his predicament, but he is quickly disabused of this notion by the more worldly-wise Papillon. He suggests that from that moment on and in that place (though perhaps also in life in general) it is every man for himself and each must do what he has to do in order to survive. They make a mutually beneficial pact which will form the basis of a long and rewarding friendship for both.

The harsh reality of their circumstances hits home as Papillon defends Dega from murderous thieves, a young fellow convict, unable to cope with his situation, is killed in an apparent bid to escape, and another wounds himself seriously to ensure he is sent to hospital where he will have time to reflect on how best to try to escape. Hopelessness and desperation set in when a fellow convict who has tried to escape once too often is guillotined before their eyes as a warning.

Apparently, washing her hands of these convicts means France is willing to turn a blind eye to corruption, institutional violence, racism, bullying and, of course, deprivation of human rights as guards and staff accept bribes, organise bounty hunters to foil escapes (sharing the bounty), use convicts’ efforts to fill their own pockets and apply pressure by deprivation as a means of “persuasion” to co-operate.

Deprived of hope, rehabilitation and humanity, Papillon and his compadres are driven to take matters into their own hands and set out to escape.

It could be argued that the penal system itself should be viewed as the principal antagonist, compelling its prisoners to comply, face destruction or defy it and seek escape. Curiously, those who choose defiance discover unknown or untested depths of character in themselves and learn to admire and value aspects and traits of common humanity they may previously have taken for granted or simply not appreciated.

These men are far from innocent and readily admit their wrongdoings but they are driven to greater acts of criminality by a system which pushes them to desperation merely to survive and leaves them with little or no sense of self-worth. Somewhat ironically, facing such hardships and inhumane treatment brings out the best in Papillon, Dega and their fellows as they discover the value of friendship, loyalty, determination, courage, compassion and spirit, all in the pursuit of freedom from what they may regard as punishment out of proportion with their crimes.

Papillon refuses to denounce Dega after the latter supplied coconuts during the former’s solitary confinement, an act of loyalty Dega has not previously experienced, but is much appreciated by him. Dega physically helps his friends escape, showing courage and loyalty of which he never knew he was capable and lepers show compassion by providing a boat for Papillon and his group because he and his friends treat the lepers with respect and consideration.

Those who share hardship and difficulty may share a bond which forges friendship, compassion and understanding, often in contrast to those who enforce regimes that cause such hardship and who may even display some of the qualities and behaviours condemned by legal systems and courts.

I am unconvinced that Henri Charrière learned the lessons depicted in the film or set out to draw attention to the themes developed within it. Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script distils and accentuates elements touched upon in Charrière’s much disputed but fascinating account of his adventures.

In passing, I would point out that Charrière’s book was published just over a century after Victor Hugo wrote “Les Misérables” in which he set out to describe the consequences of an inhumane and heartless penal system and how, with a little compassion and understanding, a man’s life can be turned around.

Franklin J. Schaffner took a difficult and perhaps unsympathetic subject and managed to wring sympathy and concern from it by focusing on the harshness of the environment and regime, and the stoicism of his protagonists underpinned by their slow but steady development as flawed human beings, but all tinged with regret and perhaps despair at the sheer waste of life on display.

Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman are quite superb in their roles. Hoffman’s nervy, twitchy and downright annoying performance captures perfectly the quirky, awkward and increasingly sorrowful Dega and is in direct contrast with McQueen’s calm, controlled and determined Papillon. Many write Steve McQueen off as just another action hero (albeit a charismatic one) but anyone who ever doubted his acting ability should see his performance here, especially in the scenes of solitary confinement. Sheer heart-rending class.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

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