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Papillon Reviews

A grim, authentically brutal film about the escape of notorious French felon Henri "Papillon" Charriere (Steve McQueen) from the supposedly inescapable prison fortress of Devil's Island. The story begins in the streets of Marseilles in the 1930s, with French soldiers escorting a large group of prisoners to the docks. Among them are McQueen, a convicted murderer, and Hoffman, a big-time stock swindler who still has a lot of money hidden. During the ensuing voyage, a couple of brutal murderers attempt to kill Hoffman but McQueen saves him. Once in Cayenne McQueen thinks only about escape. He attacks a guard who abuses Hoffman, and makes a break, only to be later recaptured. McQueen spends most of his time in solitary confinement for repeated escape attempts. Here he staves off starvation, madness, and disease while his body deteriorates. He and William Smithers, the commandant of the solitary confinement compound, engage in a contest of wills and slowly age together, their hair turning white over the years. Finally returned to the main prison, McQueen is received warmly by Hoffman, who is now living a (relatively) cushy life, paying off the guards and the warden for favorable treatment. Hoffman tries to persuade McQueen to serve out his time and wait for parole, but eventually joins him in an escape attempt just as harrowing as life on the inside. PAPILLON was produced with consummate technical skill and offers brilliant acting by McQueen and Hoffman. Schaffner, who expertly captured the gritty story of PATTON, does not flinch from showing every conceivable horror of the French penal system. Excellent supporting performances are provided by Zerbe, as the compassionate leader of a leper colony, Jory, as a stoic Indian chief, and Coulouris, as a venal prison doctor. Even scriptwriter Trumbo, who had become a cult figure by the time of this film, gets into the act, appearing as the commandant of the penal colony at the beginning of the film. Shot on location in Spain and Jamaica, PAPILLON was costly, but earned $22 million in its US release. PAPILLON was originally rated R by the MPAA for its extreme violence, but Allied Artists appealed and the rating was changed to PG.