“Papillon” is a 1973 escape action/adventure drama film about a man who is sent to a penal colony in French Guiana on a false charge in the early 1930s but tries to break out of jail with his fellow convicts. The screenplay was based on the semi-biographical novel of the same name (1969) by Henri Charrière, a French writer and former convict. It was a collaboration between the United States and France. It stars Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. 150 minutes.
Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen) is a French safecracker nicknamed “Papillon” (the French word for “Butterfly”) because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest. He is sentenced to life imprisonment on a false charge of murder, and he is transported by sea into a penal colony in French Guiana with other convicts.
On the ship, Papillon gets to know a fellow convict, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), an infamous forger who was convicted for counterfeiting national defense bonds. Papillon makes a deal with Dega: He will protect Dega as his bodyguard if Dega will finance Papillon’s plot to escape.
Papillon and Dega are held in the Prison of St-Laurent-du-Maroni. In the middle of the courtyard, there is a guillotine to execute convicts who tried to escape several times.
Papillon and Dega are forced to work in a swamp in the jungle. Dega says he will also escape with Papillon.
Papillon adds fellow convict Clusiot (Woodrow Parfrey) as a member of his escape because Clusiot can drive boats.
Papillon and Dega give money to a trading merchant, who comes to buy menelaus blue morpho butterflies collected by the convicts, and make him prepare a boat for escape.
When they work in the jungle, a prison guard assaults Dega. Protecting Dega, Papillon beats the guard and escapes, but he is caught by guards because the merchant betrays him. He is forced to live in solitary confinement for two years.
Dega sends Papillon in the jail cell a coconut once a day secretly, but a guard finds the coconut. Warden Barrot (William Smithers) asks Papillon who sent it, but Papillon never talks. Barrot reduces Papillon’s meal by half, and he forces Papillon to live in the jail cell in darkness without lights for half a year.
Papillon almost goes insane, and he nearly starves himself to death, but he survives, eating insects.
After living in solitary confinement for two years, Papillon is released and sent to the infirmary in the prison.
Papillon and his fellows ask an inmate doctor to secure a boat. The doctor says a man named Pascal will deliver a boat to them outside the prison.
A gay convict André Maturette (Robert Deman) joins the escape plot as a member.
Papillon, Dega and Maturette get out of the prison, but Clusiot is found by a guard and he fails to escape. Dega breaks his left leg.
The three meet Pascal in the jungle. Pascal leads them to the boat, but after he leaves the trio discover that it is broken and useless.
At that time, a man with a gun, who has a tattoo on his face, appears and says that he killed the bounty hunters that were waiting for them. The man tells them that they will be able to buy a boat if they raft the sea and go to Pigeon Island, where lepers live.
They go to the island on a raft. The man guides the three to a leper colony, where they get a boat from a smuggler.
The three cross the sea by boat and land in Honduras, but they are found by a group of soldiers on the beach.
Papillon and Maturette escape separately, leaving Dega, who cannot walk.
The military orders the natives to capture fugitives, dead or alive.
Papillon escapes to the jungle. He is shot with a blowgun by the natives and tumbles into the river.
Papillon manages to survive and he starts living in the native village on the sea.
One morning, Papillon awakens to find the natives gone, leaving him with a small sack of pearls.
Papillon gets a colectivo to the town. He donates pearls to a convent and asks the Mother Superior to let him live in the convent for a while, but she turns him over to the authorities.
Papillon is brought back to French Guiana and sentenced to another five years of solitary confinement.
Five years later, Papillon is released from the jail cell. His hair has gone gray. He sees Maturette being carried on a stretcher in the courtyard. Maturette dies and he is buried at sea.
Papillon is sent to the remote Devil’s Island, where he reunites with Dega.
Papillon observes a small cove from a high cliff, and he discovers that the waves are powerful enough to carry a man to the nearby mainland.
To escape from the island, Papillon and Dega make two floats out of bagged up coconuts.
When they stand on the cliff with floats, Dega gives up escaping, and he begs Papillon not to go. Papillon embraces Dega, and then he leaps from the cliff after throwing a float into the sea.
“Papillon” is a prison-escape film classic that depicts a man who keeps on fighting for freedom against the inhumane French colonial prison system with the indomitability of the human spirit.
The soundtrack was composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
The 2017 film “Papillon” directed by Michael Noer is an adaptation based on the semi-biographical novels by Henri Charrière and the 1973 film.