|Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen|
Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen), a safecracker known as Papillon (Butterfly) due to a tattoo on his chest, is convicted of murdering a pimp (a crime he insists he did not commit) and sent to a French penal colony. He becomes friends with counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) and the two start planning an escape. After several false starts and others joining the team, they manage to get out -- but their trials and tribulations are by no means over. Papillon, if I recall correctly, was a very big hit and a feel-good movie about the indominability of the human spirit. It is also very much a Hollywood movie that often tries to stay on a "light" level despite the grimness of the proceedings. At first McQueen just seems to be walking through his role -- and Hoffman hardly ever seems anything other than Dustin Hoffman in a prison skit -- but with the aid of effective make up he is more impressive in the later scenes. Papillon has to be taken with a grain of salt, as Charriere's memoirs, upon which the film is based, were later determined to be largely fictional; he was never on Devil's Island for instance. McQueen was forty-three when he did this picture, four years older than Charriere was when he made his final escape, although the actor is made up to look like a senior citizen and emotes that way as well; this is not only highly-fictionalized but on occasion plays like a parody. Victor Jory [Cat-Women of the Moon] plays an old Indian chief who wants his own tattoo; Anthony Zerbe is the leader of a colony of lepers; Bill Mumy ["It's A Good Life"] is a young convict who essentially commits suicide; Don Gordon [The Final Conflict], Woodrow Parfrey and Robert Deman are all other convicts who get involved in the big escape one way or another; they are all good. But Papillon, which holds the attention and has a few harrowing moments without ever being really riveting, gets its power not from the performances but from Fred J. Koenekamp's cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's typically effective musical score.
Verdict: Not any kind of masterpiece but Papillon's exhaustive efforts to gain his freedom eventually pull you along. ***.