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USA 1973
Directed by
Franklin J. Schaffner
150 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


For the first two-thirds of Franklin J. Schaffner’s adaptation of Henri Charrière's best-selling novel, Papillon is a decent adventure story that does well to portray the brutality of the French colonial penal system with the kind of commitment to authenticity that characterized ‘70s films.  But once Papillon and his fellow inmates, including Dustin Hoffman’s Louis Dega, escape their Guyanian island prison the film takes a retrograde step back to the ‘60s with tropical beaches, bare-breasted native girls and Jerry Goldsmith’s syrupy strings and all engagement evaporates.  

Adapted for the screen by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Dalton Trumbo, the film tells the story, which Charrière claims to have been true but no-one really believed, of how he, Papillon (played by McQueen), was sentenced to a French Guyanian penal colony where he met Dega, the most famous counterfeiter in France, and their various adventures over many years as, Cool Hand Luke-like, Papillon keeps trying to escape and Dega looks after his own interests (although how he could have so much money about or, more exactly, in, his person is somewhat of a mystery) and as much as he is able, those of Papillon.

What primarily carries the film, at least for the first two-thirds, is the dynamic between the bull-necked Papillon and more intellectual Dega and both actors give their all in what looks like a gruelling production.  But when Hoffman drops out of the story for a while the film stalls badly.  Even more damaging when Hoffman re-appears after a supposed gap of some years he seems to have morphed into Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy (1969) and the film itself into some kind of odd-couple senior penal inmate dramedy. that has as much conviction as the final shot of McQueen floating out to sea atop a bag of coconuts with a scuba diver clearly visible beneath him. Really!

FYI: The film was cut to 132m after its initial theatrical release.





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