Papillon (1973 film)

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Papillon ver1.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Tom Jung
Directed byFranklin J. Schaffner
Produced byRobert Dorfmann
Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenplay byDalton Trumbo
Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Based onPapillon
by Henri Charrière
StarringSteve McQueen
Dustin Hoffman
Victor Jory
Don Gordon
Anthony Zerbe
Music byJerry Goldsmith
CinematographyFred J. Koenekamp
Edited byRobert Swink
Les Films Corona
General Production Company
Distributed byAllied Artists (USA)
Columbia Pictures (International)
Release date
December 16, 1973 (1973-12-16)
Running time
150 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$13.5 million[2]
Box office$53,267,000[3]

Papillon is a 1973 historical drama prison film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. The screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. was based on the 1969 autobiography by the French convict Henri Charrière. The film stars Steve McQueen as Charrière ("Papillon") and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega. Because it was filmed at remote locations, the film was quite expensive for the time ($12 million), but it earned more than twice that in its first year of release.[4] The film's title is French for "Butterfly," referring to Charrière's tattoo and nickname.


Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen), a safecracker nicknamed "Papillon" because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest, is wrongly convicted of murdering a pimp. In 1933 he is sentenced to life imprisonment within the penal system in French Guiana. En route, he meets a fellow convict, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), an infamous forger and embezzler who is convinced that his wife will secure his release. Papillon offers to protect Dega if he will fund the former's escape once they reach Guiana. Enduring the horrors of life in a jungle labor camp, the two eventually become friends.

One day, Papillon defends Dega from a sadistic guard and escapes into the jungle, but is captured and sentenced to two years in solitary confinement. In gratitude, Dega has extra food smuggled to Papillon. When the smuggling is discovered, the warden screens Papillon's cell in darkness for six months and halves his rations, believing that it will force him to reveal his benefactor. Half-insane and reduced to eating insects to survive, Papillon refuses to give up Dega's name. He is eventually released and sent to the infirmary in St-Laurent-du-Maroni to recover.

Papillon sees Dega again and asks him to arrange for another escape attempt. Dega helps him meet an inmate doctor, who offers to secure him a boat on the outside with the help of a man named Pascal. Fellow prisoner Clusiot (Woodrow Parfrey) and a gay orderly named André Maturette (Robert Deman) join the escape plot. During the escape, Clusiot is knocked unconscious by a guard; Dega is forced to subdue the guard and reluctantly joins Papillon and Maturette, climbing the walls to the outside. Dega fractures his ankle in the fall. The trio meet Pascal and they escape into the night. In the jungle the next day, Pascal delivers the prisoners to their boat, but after he leaves the convicts discover that it is fake. They encounter a local trapper (John Quade) who has killed the bounty hunters that were waiting for them; he guides the three to a nearby leper colony, where they obtain supplies and a seaworthy boat.

The trio eventually land in Honduras and are accosted by a group of soldiers, who open fire and wound Maturette. He is captured along with Dega, while Papillon is forced to flee. Papillon evades the soldiers and lives for a long period with a native tribe; he awakens one morning to find them gone, leaving him with a small sack of pearls. Papillon pays a nun to take him to her convent where he asks the Mother Superior for refuge, but she instead turns him over to the authorities.

Papillon is brought back to French Guiana and sentenced to another five years of solitary confinement. He emerges a graying old man along with Maturette, whom he sees just before the latter dies. Papillon is then moved to the remote Devil's Island where he reunites with Dega, who has long given up all hope of being released. From a high cliff, Papillon observes a small cove where he discovers that the waves are powerful enough to carry a man out to sea and to the nearby mainland. Papillon urges Dega to join him in another escape, and the men make two floats out of bagged up coconuts. As they stand on the cliff side, Dega decides not to escape and begs Papillon not to either. Papillon embraces Dega a final time, and then leaps from the cliff. Grasping his float, he is successfully carried out to sea.

A narrator states that Papillon made it to freedom, and lived the rest of his life a free man.



The prison as it appeared in 1954, not long before it was closed and abandoned

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. The town scenes near the beginning of the film were shot in Hondarribia in Spain.[5] The St-Laurent-du-Maroni penal colony scenes were actually filmed in Falmouth, Jamaica, and the swamp scenes were shot near Ferris Cross. But Steve McQueen’s famous cliff-jumping scene near the end of the film took place from the cliffs in Maui, Hawaii.[6] McQueen insisted on performing the cliff-jumping stunt himself. He later said that it was "one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life."

McQueen was paid $2 million along with the contractual stipulation that he receive first billing over Dustin Hoffman.[7] In addition, author Henri Charrière himself acted as consultant on location: he let the makers of the film know of the things he encountered during his years of imprisonment.

The Prison of St-Laurent-du-Maroni where Henri Charrière was held, and where most of the action takes place, was faithfully recreated using the original blueprints.[8] Footage of the historic Prison in French Guiana plays under the end credits, which is shown to be abandoned and covered in jungle growth.


The score to Papillon was composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. It was recorded in Rome, Italy at the Ortophonic Recording Studio by the "Unione Musicisti Roma Orchestra". The film marked Goldsmith's fourth of seven collaborations with director Franklin J. Schaffner, following his Academy Award-nominated scores to Planet of the Apes (1968) and Patton (1970). Both the director and composer shared the belief that film music should be used economically; they wanted the music as commentary only in sequences where it can emphasize the psychological aspects of the film. In Papillon, the film is two and a half hours long, but has 40 minutes with 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. They generally accompany scenes outside the prison, during the various escape attempts by the protagonist. He used a delicate melodic approach, dominated by a very catchy theme expressed as a waltz, which was often played by an accordion. This instrument was associated with the French origin of the protagonists. The theme became famous with the popularity of the film, and it was released in many performance variations by different record companies.

The score was partially produced on vinyl in 1973 and reissued over the years. In the 21st century, an edition was produced on CD by Universal Records France. For the first time, this has the complete version of music from the film (it includes about five minutes of previously unreleased tracks). The DVD version of the English-language version of the film includes an option to listen to Goldsmith's music as an isolated audio track.

Goldsmith had his sixth Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score for this soundtrack. It was one of the American Film Institute's 250 nominated soundtracks for the top 25 American film scores.[9]

Box office[edit]

The film was a hit and grossed $3,126,574 in its opening week.[10] It earned theatrical rentals in the United States and Canada of $21.3 million.[11]

Critical reception[edit]

Roger Ebert's review at the time of the film's original release was two-out-of-four stars; he said that the main flaw was a failure to gain audience interest in McQueen's 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."[12] Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "a big, brave, stouthearted, sometimes romantic, sometimes silly melodrama with the kind of visual sweep you don't often find in movies anymore."[13] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote, "For 150 uninterrupted minutes, the mood is one of despair, brutality, and little hope. On a professional level, the Allied Artists release is expert in all creative and technical areas. On an audience level, it is a relentless downer."[14] Gene Siskel gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and called it "just plain boring."[15] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "'Papillon' is an eloquent tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit and a powerful indictment of those institutions dedicated only to breaking it. As such, it's lots easier to admire than to enjoy."[16] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it "a keen disappointment ... this lumbering vehicle directed by Franklin J. Schaffner leaves Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman stranded on the screen while opportunities for vivid filmmaking and sympathetic characterizations are bungled at every turn."[17] Richard Combs of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that "what is missing is any of the book's anger at the outrageous hypocrisy, injustice and inhumanity of the system; any of the passion which feeds Papillon's compulsion to escape."[18]

Quentin Tarantino called it "a pretty iconic film for boys my age who saw it when it came out... The film is very involving. It contains maybe McQueen’s finest serious acting moment on film, when he sticks his head out of the solitary confinement door and is not only unrecognizable but completely deranged. And the film contains one of the most powerful time cuts I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. The film’s also not a little pretentious, self consciously arty, unrelentingly grim, extremely grueling and except for Dustin Hoffman keeping a bankroll and an extra pair of spectacles up his ass, completely devoid of any entertainment value."[19]

Papillon holds a 79% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 28 reviews.[20]

Awards and honors[edit]

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).

In popular culture[edit]

The song "Devil's Island" by the American heavy metal band Megadeth, written by lead singer Dave Mustaine, was inspired by this film and appeared on the band's 1986 album Peace Sells... but Who's Buying?. Mustaine mentions this before playing the song during the band's Rude Awakening live DVD.[citation needed]

The song "Human Insecticide" by the Canadian thrash metal band Annihilator from their 1989 album Alice in Hell was inspired by this film.[21]

The Editors song "Papillon", from their 2009 album In This Light and on This Evening, opens with the line 'Make our escape, you're my own papillon.'

Mark Kozelek and Desertshore recorded a song called "Hey You Bastards I'm Still Here", named after Papillon’s last quote from the film, spoken in voice-over just before the closing credits start.[22]

A parody of Papillon, Farfallon is a 1974 Italian comedy film directed by Riccardo Pazzaglia.

2017 film[edit]

Another film based on the autobiographies of Charrière and the 1973 film, also called Papillon, was released in 2017, directed by Danish director Michael Noer.[23] Charlie Hunnam played the lead role of Henri Charrière, while Rami Malek played Louis Dega.[24] The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Papillon (1973)". LUMIERE. Retrieved September 11, 2017.
  2. ^ Gardner, Paul (4 September 1973). "Crime In, Sex Out, in New Film Season". New York Times. p. 30.
  3. ^ "Papillon, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 17, 2012.
  4. ^ "Movie location and cost information", TV Guide
  5. ^ "Hondarribia". Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  6. ^ Franklin J. Schaffner (Scarecrow Filmmakers Series) (1985), Scarecrow Publishing, p. 381. ISBN 978-0-8108-1799-9
  7. ^ Sandford, Christopher. Steve McQueen: The Biography. (2002), Taylor Trade Publishing, p. 247. ISBN 978-0-87833-307-3
  8. ^ The Magnificent Rebel, "Making of" documentary film included in the DVD released in 1999. The documentary includes footage of Charrière examining the set.
  9. ^ "AFI's 100 Years Of Film Scores" (PDF).
  10. ^ "Papillon 1st Week $3,126,574". Variety. January 2, 1974. p. 8.
  11. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 20
  12. ^ "Papillon Movie Review & Film Summary (1973)". Chicago Sun-Times. 16 December 1973.
  13. ^ Canby, Vincent (December 17, 1973). "The Screen: 'Papillon'". The New York Times. 59.
  14. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (December 12, 1973). "Film Reviews: Papillon". Variety. 16.
  15. ^ Siskel, Gene (December 24, 1973). "Papillon". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 15.
  16. ^ Thomas, Kevin (December 19, 1973). "'Papillon' and 'Alfredo Alfredo'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 26.
  17. ^ Arnold, Gary (December 20, 1973). "Poor Butterfly". The Washington Post. B1.
  18. ^ Combs, Richard (March 1974). "Papillon". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 41 (482): 51.
  19. ^ Tarantino, Quentin (6 April 2020). "I Escaped from Devil's Island". The New Beverly Cinema.
  20. ^ "Papillon (1973)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
  21. ^ Vinyl, Music On. "ANNIHILATOR - ALICE IN HELL - Music On Vinyl". Retrieved 2019-01-20.
  22. ^
  23. ^ "Steve McQueen's 'Papillon' Gets Remake". Variety. Retrieved 2015-10-08.
  24. ^ Fleming, Mike Jr (August 4, 2016). "'Mr. Robot's Rami Malek To Play Dustin Hoffman Role In 'Papillon' Remake". Retrieved August 4, 2016.
  25. ^ Harvey, Dennis (2017-09-08). "Toronto Film Review: 'Papillon'". Variety. Retrieved 2017-09-08.

External links[edit]