Papillon (film)

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Papillon ver1.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Tom Jung
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Produced by Robert Dorfmann
Franklin J. Schaffner
Ted Richmond (executive)
Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo
Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Based on Papillon 
by Henri Charrière
Starring Steve McQueen
Dustin Hoffman
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography Fred J. Koenekamp
Edited by Robert Swink
Distributed by Allied Artists (USA)
Columbia Pictures (Non-USA)
Release date(s) December 16, 1973 (1973-12-16)
Running time 150 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $13.5 million[1]
Box office $53,267,000[2]

Papillon is a 1973 prison film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, based on the best-selling autobiography by the French convict Henri Charrière.

The film stars Steve McQueen as Henri Charrière ("Papillon"), and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega. Due to remote locations, the film was quite expensive for the time ($12 million), but readily earned more than twice that in the first year of public distribution.[3] The film's title is French, and means "Butterfly" in English, referring to the tattoo and nickname that Charrière was given.


Henri "Papillon" Charrière (Steve McQueen), a safecracker, is unjustly convicted of murder (specifically, murdering a pimp) in 1930s France. He is sentenced to life imprisonment in the notorious French penal colony on Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana. En route he meets a fellow convict, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a forger and embezzler who is convinced that his wife will secure his release. Dega hires Papillon as his bodyguard, but the two eventually develop a friendship.

After defending Dega against a sadistic guard, Papillon is sentenced to solitary confinement. In gratitude, Dega smuggles extra food to Papillon. When the food smuggling is discovered, prison guards cut Papillon's food rations in half with the expectation that hunger will force him to reveal the name of his benefactor. Though emaciated and half-insane, and reduced to eating insects to survive, Papillon refuses to snitch on Dega and is released from solitary confinement after two years, including six months in total darkness and on half rations. Reunited with Dega, they soon begin planning their escape.

While recovering in the infirmary, Papillon meets a homosexual orderly named André Maturette (Robert Deman) who insists on joining their escape plot. The prisoners bribe a guard who promises to give them a boat, but Dega breaks his ankle during the escape. After paying the guard and tramping into the jungle, they discover that the boat is unseaworthy. A local trapper, who reveals that the guard has repeatedly cheated prisoners by first taking their money and then arranging to have them captured by bounty hunters, kills the bounty hunters who are lying in wait for them, and refers Papillon to a nearby leper colony where they obtain supplies and a boat.

After reaching the mainland, the trio are accosted by a group of soldiers. The soldiers open fire. Maturette is shot and captured along with Dega, still crippled by his broken ankle. After evading the soldiers, Papillon lives for a long period with a native tribe before waking one day to find the tribe has moved on. At a police checkpoint, Papillon pays a nun to join her entourage and goes with her to a convent. Admitting he is an escapee but stressing that he is not a murderer, Papillon asks the Mother Superior for refuge, but she turns him over to the authorities.

As punishment for his escape Papillon spends five years in solitary confinement and, now gray-haired, is released just in time to see a dying Maturette. Papillon is imprisoned on the remote Devil's Island, where he reunites with Dega.

From a high cliff, Papillon observes that every seventh wave that comes into a small harbor rebounds from the rocks and is powerful enough to carry him out to sea. Manufacturing two floats, he tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade Dega to come with him. After embracing Dega, Papillon leaps from the cliff and, grasping his float, is carried into the sea.

A narrator states that Papillon lived the rest of his life in freedom, and outlived the prison. The prison is shown abandoned and overgrown by jungle plants.



Papillon was filmed at various locations in Spain and Jamaica, with the cave scenes filmed beneath what is now the Xtabi hotel on the cliffs of Negril. While the penal colony scenes for Papillon were filmed in Falmouth, Jamaica, and the swamp scenes were shot near Ferris Cross, Steve McQueen’s famous cliff-jumping scene near the end of the film took place on the cliffs in Maui, Hawaii.[4] McQueen insisted on performing the cliff-jumping stunt himself, and later referred to it as "one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life".[5]


The score to Papillon was composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. The film marked Goldsmith's fourth collaboration with director Franklin J. Schaffner following his Oscar nominated scores to Planet of the Apes (1968) and Patton (1970). Both the director and musician shared the belief that film music should be used economically, allocating the musical commentary to only those sequences where it can emphasize the psychological aspects of the narrative not evident in the film. In Papillon this philosophy is especially evident since the film is two and a half hours in duration with little more than 40 minutes of music.

Goldsmith's compositions, characterized by a late romantic symphonic and impressionistic style suffused with a metered, exotic timbre (using instruments from Caribbean folk music) are distributed mainly in the second half of the film, and generally appear in the scenes outside the prison during the various escape attempts by the protagonist. He also used a delicate melodic approach, dominated by a very catchy theme, exposed in the form of a waltz, often entrusted to the accordion, an instrument that is instinctively drawn from the French origin of the protagonists. The theme, which became famous at the time of the film, was published in many variations by different record companies.

The score was partially produced on vinyl back in 1970 and reissued over the years, until a recent edition was produced on CD by Universal Records France, which contains for the first time the complete version (with the addition of about five minutes of previously unreleased tracks). The DVD version of the English language also allows you to listen to music on Goldsmith's isolated audio track.

The soundtrack went on to garner Goldsmith his sixth Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score and was one of the American Film Institute's 250 nominated soundtracks for the top 25 American film scores.[6]


Papillon is now often regarded as a classic. Several critics suggest the film is McQueen's best performance. In contrast, Roger Ebert's review upon the film's original release was only two-out-of-four stars, stating that the main flaw was a failure to make the audience interested in McQueen and Hoffman's characters: "You know something has gone wrong when you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over."[7]


In 1974, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (Jerry Goldsmith) and a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actor, Drama (Steve McQueen). [8]


  1. ^ Crime In, Sex Out, in NewFilm Season: Malefactors on the Rise Siegel Gets Matthau Keeping Costs Down By PAUL GARDNER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 04 Sep 1973: 30.
  2. ^ "Papillon, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 17, 2012. 
  3. ^ Movie location and cost information
  4. ^ Franklin J. Schaffner (Scarecrow Filmmakers Series) (1985), Scarecrow Publishing, p. 381. ISBN 978-0-8108-1799-9
  5. ^ Sandford, Christopher. Steve McQueen: The Biography. (2002), Taylor Trade Publishing, p. 247. ISBN 978-0-87833-307-3
  6. ^ AFI's 100 Years Of Film Scores at
  7. ^
  8. ^

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