Papillon (1973) starring Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe directed by Franklin J. Schaffner Movie Review

Papillon (1973)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Steve McQueen in Papillon (1973)

The Prisoner with a Butterfly Tattoo

Having been sentenced to life for murder, Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen), known as "Papillon" due to the butterfly tattoo on his chest, finds himself on a transporter with other criminals heading to a penal colony in French Guiana. It is how he meets the notorious forger Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a little man who agrees to bank roll Henri's escape attempt in return for protection. Henri's escape from the penal colony doesn't go well and he ends up put in the brutal solitary unit. But after a year in solitary Henri is released and so starts his plans to escape again with the help of Dega.

Like a bus, you wait for one to come along and then two arrive, in truth I wasn't waiting for a movie like "Papillon" to come along but it was the second movie of the weekend which left me feeling annoyed. Annoyed because "Papillon" has a lot which is right about it but at the same time it has some thing wrong, that small percentage which ends up dragging it down and at 151 minutes makes it feel every minute of that length.

Dustin Hoffman in Papillon (1973)

Now "Papillon" is a simple movie which is based upon the memoir of Henri Charriere who was a fugitive known for making several prison attempts during his life and as such this is a look at what he says he went through whilst in a French Guiana penal colony. We see how he became close to forger Louis Dega; we see the work they were forced to do on the island and the harshness of solitary confinement. It is the harshness of life which will have you gripped especially those in solitary confinement with Steve McQueen delivering an astonishing performance as a man driven to insanity by the harshness and his refusal to squeal on Dega for paying to have extra food smuggled in to him. It is incredibly powerful stuff especially as on top of the harshness we have dream sequences as Henri starts to lose it whilst on the verge of dying.

McQueen is undoubtedly the star of "Papillon" and it is a performance which should have won him an Oscar yet he didn't even receive a nomination. But he is surrounded by good performances with Dustin Hoffman filling Louis Dega full of minute mannerisms which makes him a fascinating prisoner and one who is interesting in contrast to McQueen's Henri which in turn makes their friendship interesting.

But as I said "Papillon" isn't perfect and for me it comes down to director Franklin J. Schaffner who seems to be going all out in every single scene to make an impact but in doing so over cooks some of the scenes. In fact you need some lesser scenes to provide the ups and downs and the gaps in intensity because with out them "Papillon" ends up a heavy and exhausting experience.

What this all boils down to is that "Papillon" is a great movie and features for me Steve McQueen at his very best. But for me the unrelenting nature of every single scene makes it too heavy and that makes it sadly an exhausting movie.