Papillon, 1973. 9/10

A great drama, and an epic adventure. I saw this when it first came out; I remember the leper colony scene, but hardly anything else. Thankfully, I came back to Papillon.

McQueen was perfectly cast as the title character; this might be his best performance. The zigzagging between hope and despair, idyllic freedom and abject suffering, with all the shades in between, shows excellent writing, even given the fascinating original story. McQueen’s severe and abrupt changes of fortune point out the nuances of human behavior, as well as the role of chance in life.

None of this highly complex atmosphere would work without the mixture of sympathy with sadism, hospitality with hostility, exotic, picturesque locales with the numb routine of the prison cell. Not all the guards are brutal, not all the prisoners deserve our sympathy. Likewise, the various ‘outsider’ cultures are in different worlds from the prison culture, as well as from each other.

There are several poignant scenes: the guys in solitaire who introduce themselves as they poke their heads out of their cells, reassuring their neighbor that they ‘look well’, when they probably both know that the other looks terrible. The friendships broken by death, suddenly or slowly rendered, of an old friend or a new one, happen with pathetic regularity. The capacity to share and to help keeps the prisoners human, even uplifting them.

I’m tempted to say that there’s an existential thread running through Papillon, given that the book was written in the ’30s, at the height of the French existentialist movement. Certainly there’s meticulous attention to the existentialist theme of surviving in an absurd world with dignity. Oddly enough, with the crushing level of authority ruling the prisoners, they retain the considerable freedom of their attitude towards their dilemma.

Even as pure adventure, Papillon succeeds. The cinematography is beautiful where beauty is present, and horrifying where terror rules. I usually zone-out when a movie runs more than two hours, but in this case I didn’t want it to end. McQueen is the quintessential adventurer. He overcomes so many obstacles; but he’s not superman, and so he also makes plenty of mistakes. His character’s demeanor as a cautious but essentially trusting man serves him well.

He survives because he knows that there’s no obvious truth, but only situations; and each calls for its own plan. The flashes of humor highlight the discrepancies between what one expects, and what actually happens. No one would expect a prison movie to show inmates chasing butterflies–but there it is, and it certainly fits. McQueen’s nonchalance is put to the ultimate test when he accepts the leper’s cigar. That he unwittingly fools the leper shows a superb interplay of danger and luck.

There’s considerable deception going on throughout. A game-like quality coexists with the deadly serious aspects of repeated escape and confinement. That brings up my only issue with Papillon: Dustin Hoffman’s performance shows too much posing, and not enough grit.
He’s got this bemused look that doesn’t fit his character. It’s as though he’s above it all, in on all the machinations of prison life, and even comfortable with it. He does makes a good foil for McQueen’s restlessness, but his Zen-like gaze is a bit much.

We really don’t get into ethics here; clearly neither McQueen’s nor Hoffman’s characters are violent criminal types. Some of the characters have probably been rail-roaded, but some of them are murderers. In a way, it doesn’t matter what the characters have done to land them in Guyana. We’re judging them on how they act in these moments.

A great movie; intricate, and yet, all of a piece. 9/10.

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