Based on a true story, but taking a number of liberties, this is Franklin J. Schaffner's sprawling portrait of Henri Charriere- a wrongly imprisoned criminal who made his mark on the world for being one of the few people to ever escape from the infamous French penal colony of Devil's Island.
The film follows Charriere, often referred to as Papillon (French for "butterfly"- based on a prominent tattoo of his), as he deals with incarceration. He is an admitted safe cracker, but his life sentence on Devil's Island is for the murdering of a pimp, something he claims he didn't actually do, and was set up.
Life in the prison is downright grueling, but he struggles through it quite admirably. In his struggle to survive, escape (and escape for good), he is joined by Louis Dega, a counterfeiter whose connections could greatly help Papillon in his quest.
Here's the thing about this movie. It's long. 150 minutes. I've seen a number of films of this length, and a number of them that ran even longer. But, this proved to be one of the more difficult films of this length to get through. It's quite slow, is extremely drawn out, and makes you feel like you've done extensive time in the prison as well.
It's a good movie, don't get me wrong. But it really doesn't need to be this long, are at least not this slow and stretched out.
For that reason, I'm cutting the rating down afair amount. The rest of the film is just fine, though the ending kinda peters out. But the writing is decent, the cinematography is terrific, the score from Jerry Goldsmith is quite good, and we get two excellent performances from Steve McQueen as Papillon and Dustin Hoffman as Dega.
I also loved how the film pulls no punches when it comes to showing the horrors of prison life. I know that PG rated films from the 70s were edgier than they are now, but this is easily one of the hardest PG films ever. I doubt it'd get that rating today. Maybe a strong PG-13. The film has clear messages, and delivers them decently, if just in a plodding way.
All in all, I did enjoy this film, but make sure you're in the right frame of mind, and are up for a really lumbering film.