Okay, but He Was Still a Criminal, Right?
This is another one of those movies where the "based on a true story" should be taken with a grain of salt. It is based on a book by the person it's supposedly about, but estimates hold that perhaps ten percent of the book is true. This includes such details as events' having happened to other prisoners--or never having happened at all. The description of Devil's Island, for example, bears no actual relation to what the real Devil's Island actually looks like. Or anyway, the big, dramatic ending is impossible from the real Devil's Island, despite that being exactly how Our Ostensible Hero describes it in his book. French authorities have since released records that prove that he was never on Devil's Island in the first place, so there's no way he could have known exactly how inaccurate it was. What he appears to have known is that it made for a better story.
Our Ostensible Hero is one Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen), known as "Papillon" for the butterfly tattoo on his chest. He is convicted of killing a pimp, a crime for which he swears he was framed, and sent on to the prison system of French Guiana. On the boat across the Atlantic, he befriends fellow prisoner Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a forger who has plenty of money and plenty of enemies. Papillon will protect Dega if Dega will fund his escape. They even become friends, something neither was really expecting. Papillon serves time in solitary confinement for protecting Dega. It is extended because Dega smuggles him food and Papillon will not say who did it. Afterward, Papillon and Dega, along with young murderer Maturette (Robert Deman), manage to escape. This is unsuccessful, and their punishment is five years of solitary confinement. However, Papillon manages to emerge with his spirit unbroken, even though he and Degas are sent to Devil's Island, supposedly completely escape-proof.
Steve McQueen is in two movies where he escapes a lot despite overwhelming odds and getting caught again, and I have to tell you, I was less impressed with this one. Part of the issue was, while the penal system was definitely lacking in the "humanity" department (five years' solitary confinement?), the people in it were still, when you get right down to it, criminals. Okay, so Henri Charrière says he was framed, says he never killed anyone. Great! In the movie, Papillon admits to being a safe-cracker and doesn't know what he'll do with himself as a free man. Dega really was a forger; Maturette really was a murderer. In [i]The Great Escape[/i], the characters were prisoners of war. What's more, they were escaping from the Nazis. These are criminals escaping from prison, and that always has less emotional impact to me. I'm not saying that the prison was somewhere anyone should have been confined, but I am saying that they all did something to get locked up, and there's a reason Dega doesn't have any friends.
It's worth noting that, for the most part, the justice system of France is invisible in this movie. During the Devil's Island section of the film, I'm not sure we ever see a person other than Papillon and Dega after Papillon's introduction to the island. We see a trial during a dream sequence, but it's a fantastic trial, not an image of the one Papillon actually experienced. There are guards. Punishment happens. However, there are no symbols of true authority through large amounts of the film. Just police of one variety of another. The penal system exists, but the justice system does not. I don't think this is intended to be an allegory; to be honest, I just think they figured it wasn't as important as the various action bits. Which I can understand, given that this is both a Guy Movie and a '70s Movie. Still. I can't help wondering if a rather more fair portrayal of the life of Henri Charrière would sell considerably fewer tickets.
I do think it's important to make the distinction between "Henri Charrière" and "Papillon." My other qualms aside, this is the intriguing portrayal of a character. A man who is so determined not to live the way he is supposed to that he would rather risk his life, repeatedly, then just quietly live out his sentence of back-breaking work in a malaria-infested jungle. I do not think it is the story of Henri Charrière, and I am far from alone in this. If you can ignore the "based on a true story" thing (and like Guy Movies), you'll probably enjoy this considerably more than I do. There is the aspect that Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman kind of appear to be in different movies from one another, based on their acting styles, but Dustin Hoffman often seems to be in his own private little movie, no matter who else is onscreen with him. This was an expensive production because they had to haul everything in, and apparently, there was a bit of a theft problem at some of the locations. You can't necessarily see it onscreen, but it's still worth watching.