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Generally regarded as Steve McQueen's last great role, Papillon (1973) stars the late actor as Henri Charriere, known as Papillon (French for butterfly) for the tattoo on his chest. He's a petty thief who is given life imprisonment for murder and sent to Devil's Island, located more than 20 miles offshore in the French Guyana, from where there is no escape. Once there, the warden lays down the rules of Papillon's new home: first escape attempt will get you two years in solitary, second escape attempt, five years of the same and so it goes. Papillon has no choice but to suffer the rigors, but all the while he is planning his breakout. He is aided by Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a wealthy con artist and prisoner who has placed too much faith in the notion that he can buy his way to freedom. Unfortunately, neither of them can foresee who will exploit and betray them.
Director Franklin Schaffner, a former cameraman for "The March of Time" newsreel, directs Papillon in the lively, authoritative style of his previous screen biographies, Patton (1970) and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971). In particular, Schaffner graphically details the effects of seclusion and spiritual degradation at the hands of the French Penal system. The punishments that Papillon endures in prison are shown in considerable extent: his arm and leg are chained behind his back to a table, he's forced to eat like a dog out of a tin plate and shares his sleeping quarters with a crocodile. More importantly, Papillon never loses hope or his desire for freedom, regardless of his desperate situation. Acts of betrayal and years of solitary confinement - conditions that would break a lesser man - never seem to get to him. In fact, they seem to strengthen his resolve to not give up.
Papillon was shot on location in Spain (doubling for the French locations in the film) and Jamaica; the prison set was constructed in Falmouth, Jamaica, and was the largest in the film, running an expanse of 800 feet. The Devil's Island and Indian village sequences were filmed in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and the scene featuring the arrival of the prison ship was lensed in Kingston, Jamaica. Unfortunately, the tropical island proved to be a troublesome location due to unpredictable weather, the plentiful abundance of ganji (marijuana) which affected the productivity of several crew members, and numerous thefts, resulting in the loss of costumes, set props, machinery, and other items to the tune of $30,000.
On the plus side, McQueen was an inspired choice for the role of Charriere and even insisted on doing his own stunt work for the film. As Dega, Hoffman is also exceptionally good, especially in the end when his character sadly loses grip on reality and begins talking to pigs. Another standout in the cast is Anthony Zerbe who gives a moving performance as the Leper Colony Chief. Kudos to the makeup department as well for Zerbe's effectively grotesque appearance. However, only the music score by Jerry Goldsmith was recognized by a nomination at Oscar time.
Of special interest is the film's screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. For many years his fame as one of the 'Hollywood Ten' during Hollywood's communist witch hunts of the mid-forties out shadowed his outstanding screenplays for such Oscar award-winning films as Kitty Foyle (1940) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). Papillon was one of his last scripts and you can actually spot Trumbo in a brief cameo as the prison camp commandant. Dustin Hoffman even modeled his character of Dega on the writer, later telling an interview, "He's a real feisty man and he's got a combination of toughness and sophistication and integrity that I felt were right for Dega....So I said, why didn't he write the character of himself, so to speak?" And that is exactly what Trumbo did.
Producer: Robert Dorfmann, Robert O. Kaplan (assistant producer), Ted Richmond (executive producer), Franklin J. Schaffner
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenplay: from Henri Charriere's novel, Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Production Design: Anthony Masters
Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp
Costume Design: Anthony Powell
Film Editing: Robert Swink
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Principal Cast: Steve McQueen (Henri 'Papillon' Charriere), Dustin Hoffman (Louis Dega), Victor Jory (Indian Chief), Don Gordon (Julot), Anthony Zerbe (Toussaint Leper Colony Chief), Robert Deman (Maturette), Billy Mumy (Lariot), George Coulouris (Dr. Chatal).
by Michael T. Toole & Jeff Stafford