#237 Papillon (1973)


151 mins

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Writer: Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr. (screenplay), Henri Charrière (Novel)

Cast: Steve McQueenDustin HoffmanVictor Jory

Storyline: “A man befriends a fellow criminal as the two of them begin serving their sentence on a dreadful prison island, which inspires the man to plot his escape.” IMDB


American Girl :

I have never seen or heard of Papillion before this blog, so this will be another movie which I am watching “blindly”.  All I know is that it is about a prison break.  I don’t have strong feelings for or against this movie and I am going into it with a completely open mind.

Brit Boy:

I also have never watched this film but had heard of it, for whatever reason I did think it was a war movie, so was quite surprised to find out it was about a prison break. I do like both Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen so this peaks my interest to settle down and start watching.

Set the Scene

We are getting pretty boring here now that Brit Boy and I are married and with children… We snuggled up one night to watch Papillion together with a few beers on a summer night.  It actually took us THREE sittings to finish the movie, as neither of us realized that it is 2 ½ hours long.

Final Cut

It took me awhile to really get into Papillion, for many reasons.  First, even though Brit Boy purchased us a special edition blu ray DVD (as he always does for our blog movies), I really struggled hearing the actors’ voices.  I know a lot of this is due to the fact this movie was made in 1973 and movie making technology is not what it is today, but many times I could barely understand what anyone was saying over all the background noise.  However, I did finally seem to adjust after 20 or 30 minutes into the film.


I must admit this wasn’t a problem for me American Girl, as I was more taken in by the cinematography. It had that really epic movie style quality that we seem to have moved away from in the last 20 years. Without the ease of falling back onto green screens and visual affects (not that this film needed them or I have anything against them per se), it made for a grittier more real film.

The filming style was very original, it never felt staged or scripted.  It is as though the director literally threw all the actors/prisoners on set and just followed them around with cameras.  At one point, Brit Boy noticed a chicken which is injured after being stepped on by an actor which apparently was real and not scripted.  (In today’s society there would probably be outrage if any animal was injured on screen accident or not!) There was always stuff going on in the background as well, the scenes were never focused solely on the main actors.  This background “noise” so to speak, is probably what made it difficult for me to focus on the main story line for the beginning portion of the film.

The chicken completely threw me (if one can get thrown by a chicken), it was close to the beginning of the film when the prisoners are being marched through a village to the camp, one prisoner passed out due to exhaustion. Unfortunately the actor fell on the chicken and injured it in some way, I’ve subsequently looked this up online (I know very trustworthy..) and it is confirmed that my eyes did not deceive me. As for the background noise, I felt it was incepting with the film and did not distract me.

I must also admit that I was shocked to see Dustin Hoffman in this role!  It is not a character I would have pictured him playing, and I do wonder if this was one of his first major roles.  I am sure Brit Boy will do some research for me… Steve McQueen was also fantastic in this movie, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was up for some awards for his performance.  I know Steve McQueen stars in “The Great Escape” one of Brit Boy’s favorite movies (which I have still yet to see), but beyond that I had never really heard of him before.  This movie represented him well, and I would be happy to watch more of his films in the future.


Well American Girl this wasn’t actually one of Hoffman’s earliest films in fact he had some acclaim prior to this with films such as The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and Straw Dogs, I certainly don’t think this will be the first time we see one of his earlier works. I completely agree Steve McQueen was amazing as “Papillon” and was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1974 for his role, only to be beaten by Al Pacino and his role in Serpico.

One thing that stuck with me through this movie is the notion of “cruel and unusual punishment”.  I definitely do not want to get on a political soap box, but generally my feeling is that if people do really bad things than really bad things should happen to them.  This prison (which I believe is based on a real prison), was not just for hard core criminals.  In fact Hoffman’s character was convicted of financial fraud, and Papillion for murdering a pimp, neither crime seems the worst of the worst.  However, this didn’t stop them from being shipped to an Island to perform back breaking labor in which many inmates commit suicide in gruesome ways just to “escape”.  The point in the movie where Papillion is thrown in solitary confinement for two years became almost too difficult for me to endure watching.

The long periods of solitary confinement reminded me of McQueens subsequent role as the Cooler King in the Great Escape, however as American Girl states above the punishment was for much longer and was much harsher. When it makes a Nazi POW camp look tame you can recognize that this is bad….. Many of the inmates did not make it through this severe punishment often being locked in complete darkness for weeks at a time, many were lucky if they just came out completely mad.

The movie did seem to drag on, and I feel that many of the scenes probably could have been cut out with no real effect on the story line.  When we stopped watching on the second sitting we thought we had another 30-45 minutes to go.  Little did we know that there was only five minutes left of the film!  This definitely ruined the ending for me, as I lost all of the buildup.  However, I can’t believe that neither Brit Boy nor I realized we were in the midst of the climax of the movie or we never would have stopped watching!  I guess that does about sum up my general experience of this film, it was good at parts, the acting was superb, but it failed to ever really grab my attention. I don’t feel l wasted my time watching the film, even if just to get history on an old French prison.  

I completely agree this film did appear over long, however it did get me thinking to the time when this was released there would be an intermission so you could go to the bathroom and grab a Cornetto (a type of ice-cream American Girl). So maybe in two distinct sitting in the Cinema maybe the length was just right. If only we had lasted that extra five minutes I think the climax of the film would have been much better, as it was it was touching and quite moving.

Even though I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this film, I do think it deserves a spot on the list, because the talent of the cast is pretty extraordinary.

I think this deserves its place and yet again probably should be higher up but we won’t know until we have watched a few more films, onwards and upwards……

Footnote – Six Degrees of Sir Richard Attenborough

Screenwriter William Goldman identified Schaffner in 1981 as being one of the three best directors (then living) at handling ‘scope’ (a gift for screen epics) in films. The other two were David Lean and Richard Attenborough. – John Bradey, “The craft of the screenwriter”, 1981. Page 168


This entry was posted in IMDB Top 250, IMDB Top 250 Movie Review, Movie Review and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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