“Put all hope out of your mind. And masturbate as little as possible, it drains the strength.”
Steve McQueen is someone I’ve always thought of more as a movie star than an actor. That’s not an insult. I think The Great Escape is one of the best movies ever made, and he’s a big part of what makes it so good. But he’s one of those dudes who seemed to get by more on effortless cool, than he did on serious acting chops. So after years of thinking the McQueen of movies like The Great Escape and Bullit was the only McQueen there was, I was blown away to see him act his ass off, in Papillon.
It’s the 1930s in France, and a group of prisoners are being told that their crimes were so great, their native country has basically disowned them. They’ll be shipped off to the colonies to do serious hard time on a hellish island in the West Indies. Wrongly convicted of killing a pimp, Papillon (McQueeen) is one of those prisoners. On the ocean journey to his new island home, Papillon meets Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a nebbish nerd, convicted of some sort of white collar crime and forgery. They come to a mutually beneficial agreement that sees Papillon acting as Dega’s bodyguard, and Dega promising to provide Papillon with money to escape when they reach the island.
Their arrangement quickly becomes a genuine friendship, and when Papillon saves Dega from an abusive guard, he’s rewarded with an extended stay in solitary confinement. After months of starvation and abuse, Papillion is finally released and his plans for escape, with help from Dega, take shape.
Based on apparent true story, Papillon is some brutal shit. Even before the indignities and inhumane treatment of the island prison, these dudes are put through pretty hellish gear in Paris. Marched through the streets from their Parisian jail to the shipyards, they must face their loved ones as they are lead to exile and almost certainly a grizzly end.
Then once on the aptly named Devil’s Island, things are really taken up a notch with disease, deadly animals, physical and mental abuse, and even a bit of the ol’ rape, just for good measure. It’s relentless, often wince inducing and some of the roughest stuff I’ve ever seen in a movie starring two A-listers like this, made in the early 70s.
And it’s those two A-listers who deserve all of the credit for everything right about Papillon. Combining an “ACTOR” like Hoffman with a “MOVIE STAR” like McQueen could have lead to a really awkward clashing of tones and approaches, but they work together and mesh amazingly well. Papillon lives or dies on the believability of the relationship between these two men, and I never doubted that relationship for a second.