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 dates
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 being filmed at remote locations, the film was quite expensive for the time ($12 million), but it readily earned more than twice that in the first year of public distribution.[3] The film's title is French for "Butterfly," referring to Charrière's tattoo and nickname.


1930's France. Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen), a safecracker nicknamed Papillon because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest, is wrongly convicted of murdering a pimp, he is being framed for the crime. He is sentenced to life imprisonment within the penal system in 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, believing 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. After two years he is released from solitary confinement, having spent six months in total darkness and on half rations. A grateful Dega, who would not have had any ill feeling toward Papillon if he had told the warden that it was he who arranged the extra food, wants to pay back Papillon, which Papillon states is not necessary. However, Papillon plans another escape with Dega's help. Another inmate, Clusiot (Woodrow Parfrey), who Papillon and Dega long ago befriended, begs to go along, to which Papillon ultimately agrees. Although Papillon wants Dega to go along, Dega declines, still believing that his wife will eventually get him released, which Papillon does not think will ever happen as the prison system now "owns" him.

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. During the escape, Clusiot is knocked unconscious by a guard, but Dega, sensing an opportunity and reflecting on what Papillon told him, makes a run for it with Papillon and Maturette. The three do escape, Dega seriously injuring his ankle in the process during a high fall. After paying the guard and tramping into the jungle, they discover that the boat is unseaworthy, at the same time discovering that Dega's injury is a fracture. A local trapper, who reveals that the guard has repeatedly cheated prisoners by taking their money and then arranging to have them captured by bounty hunters, has killed the waiting bounty hunters. He 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; one day he awakes to find they have moved on. One thing he finds that they have left behind and that he takes with him is a small bag of pearls, which they used to barter with western traders. At a police checkpoint, Papillon pays a nun with a pearl to join her entourage and goes with her to a convent. Admitting he is a fugitive but stressing that he is not a murderer, Papillon asks the Mother Superior for refuge, leaving her all his remaining pearls to prove his good faith. She turns him over to the authorities, keeping the pearls. She justifies her actions by stating that if he is guilty of crimes, he has fed the poor with his donation of the pearls; if he is not guilty of crimes, God will watch over him in prison.

As punishment for his escape, Papillon is forced to spend five years in solitary confinement. He has gray hair when released and sees Maturette, who is dying. He later watches the authorities dump Maturette's dead body into shark infested waters. Papillon is moved to 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 out of bagged up coconuts, 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. He outlived the prison, which was closed in 1953. 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. The penal colony scenes for Papillon were 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.[4] 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 for his services in the film along with the contractual stipulation that he receive first billing over Dustin Hoffmann.[5] 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 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; they wanted the music as commentary only in sequences where it can emphasize the psychological aspects of the film. In Papillon, the film is 2 1/2 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 1970 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.[6]

Box Office[edit]

The film was a hit, earning North American theatrical rentals of $21.3 million.[7]

Critical reception[edit]

Roger Ebert's review at the time of the film's original release was two-of-four stars; he said that the main flaw was a failure to gain audience interest 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."[8] Since the late 20th century, Papillon has become regarded as a classic adventure film. Several critics suggest the film is McQueen's best performance.[citation needed]

Papillon currently holds an 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes from a sample of 22 reviews.

As of October 2015, it was announced that Red Granite is developing a remake of this film with Danish director Michael Noer attached. [9]


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).

Popular culture[edit]

Berts vidare betraktelser features Bert's family renting a car to get a wide view of Jamaica, and see the movie's filming locations.[10]

See also[edit]


  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", TV Guide
  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. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 20
  8. ^ "Papillon Movie Review & Film Summary (1973)". Chicago Sun-Times. 16 December 1973. 
  9. ^ "Steve McQueen's 'Papillon' Gets Remake". Variety (in en-US). Retrieved 2015-10-08. 
  10. ^ Anders Jacobsson, Sören Olsson (1990). "Tisdag 18 juli". Berts vidare betraktelser (in Swedish). p. 157. 

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