There is a distinct and very popular sub-genre called (at least in my book) prison break movies/series. This is not a favorite of mine, but there are a number of excellent representatives of this genre on the List. “A Man Escaped”, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Papillon” to mention a few.
They have this in common that someone we would root for have been imprisoned (unfairly) and in an escape-room-like challenge attempts to gain the freedom the System will not grant him. This is the ultimate freedom of the individual against the oppressive structures of the majority scenario. In the case of “Papillon” this person is Papillon (Steve McQueen), based on the real-life character of Henri Charrière.
At the opening of the movie a group of French prisoners are being moved from France to a penal colony in French Guyana, among these Papillon. We never learn exactly how he got there, but it is hinted that he was falsely accused of murder to get him out of the way. En-route to South America Papillon befriends the geeky Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) a notorious forger who apparently caused a financial scandal where many people lost a lot of money. Dega has hidden away a lot of money where the sun does not shine and Papillon, seeing this man needs protection, considers a friendship with Dega a win-win situation.
The prison in French Guyana is not a pleasant place. It is hard work, diseases and humiliation and Papillon, despite dire warnings, is looking for ways to escape. Turns out there is an entire industry of luring prisoner’s money by offering fraud escape routes. Papillon’s first escape attempt falls into one such trap and he spends the next two years in isolation. Dega tries to smuggle in food to him, and when it is discovered, rather than ratting on Dega, Papillon endures by eating bugs.
Papillon’s stay in prison becomes a continuation of escape attempts and hard punishment and that seems to be the morale of the story. The prison system against the spirit of this man. We see many others who lose this fight and either break or die or both (the system does not want to correct the prisoners, it wants revenge), but Papillon refuse to do either. Papillon may be fighting a futile battle, but the fact that he continues to fight it is a victory in itself.
Louis Dega handles the disappointments differently. He bends and closes up inside himself. By the end he is not entirely mad, but so secluded in his own world, and comfortable there, that he cannot be reached, neither by Papillon nor by the system.
“Papillon” works because the prison system is as brutal as it is and because Papillon and Dega are as sympathetic as they are. In fact, it is difficult to see any of the prisoners as deserving and that makes them more like KZ prisoners. This makes the struggle morally easy and let it focus on the philosophical dilemma between individual freedom and conformity. Of course, this is a brutal simplification and leaves out all the arguments for having a penal system in the first place, but that is not where this movie wants to go, and the simplification gives it clarity.
Another reason why it is works is the very high production value. McQueen and Hoffman were at this point at their peak and it shows. The acting if first rate and dialogue is only a small part of it. The set design is exquisite with a copy of the original prison and jungle scenery so steamy and humid that you feel it watching the movie. My only complaint, really, is that the whole thing takes place in English and not in French. This threw me in the beginning, but eventually I got used to it and had it been in French, I doubt we would have gotten Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as Papillon and Louis Dega.
“Papillon” is a definite recommendation from me and another great movie from 1973. This is quickly becoming one of the good years in cinema.