Henri 'Papillon' Charriere's account of life in the infamous and reputedly inescapable Devil's Island prison, brought to the screen with Steve McQueen as its eponymous hero. Refusing to surrender to the cruelty of the prison regime, Papillon protects the bespectacled Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) from an abusive guard, makes a bid for freedom, and ends up spending a long spell in solitary confinement. When he is finally released back into the main prison, he again refuses to surrender and, along with Dega, makes another escape attempt.
Franklin J Schaffner's Papillon
is quite possibly the definitive prison escape drama. Not as thrilling as The Great Escape
, nor as emotionally cathartic as The Shawshank Redemption
, its unflinching emphasis on the barbarism of "civilised" societies is nevertheless unparalleled. Significantly, the only characters to display any real kindness in this film are the social outcasts: the lepers and native Indians; everyone else has been corrupted and debased by the true villain, the penal system itself. Based on Henri Charrière' s heavily fictionalised "autobiography"
, the film's timeless themes of man's insatiable desire for freedom and the indomitability of the human spirit are thankfully not dependent for their impact on the source material's veracity. Dalton Trumbo's liberal-minded screenplay echoes the themes of his earlier script for Spartacus
, and Schaffner's innate gift for epic cinema (this was made just two years after his great war biography Patton
) is fully equal to the task of realising it on screen. The director's painterly eye for widescreen composition and his careful pacing impart a gravitas to proceedings even during the film's most squalid depictions of brutality, of which there are many emphasising the cheapness of human life among the convicts and their equally criminal prison guards in the penal colony of French Guiana. Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman form a remarkable screen pairing, with Hoffman outstanding as the pusillanimous Dega. McQueen magnificently overcomes his tough-guy persona in the extraordinary solitary confinement sequences as he is gradually reduced to a shambling, cockroach-eating wreck. Longtime collaborator Jerry Goldsmith, who had previously scored Schaffner's Planet of the Apes
, attained yet another career high with his music.
On the DVD: The anamorphic widescreen print of the original Panavision 2. 35:1 ratio looks fine without being as stunning as some more modern prints; the Dolby 5.1 audio does however do great service to Jerry Goldsmith's score, which can also be selected separately from the Audio Setup menu as an isolated track (note that there's no music at all in the first 20 minutes of the film). The 12-minute "Magnificent Rebel" featurette was made at the time of the film's release , and includes some fascinating footage of Henri Charrière touring the prison se t, reminiscing about his experiences and pontificating ("Society does not want free men, society wants conditioned men"). --Mark Walker