Quote from Papillon (1973) by Toussaint: “If you’re going to catch leprosy, it’s better to catch it from money than from people.”
Quote from Papillon (2017) by Dega: “Now what’s the son of two school teachers doing in a place like this?”
I’ve been wanting to watch these movies for a while. I finally got around to brushing the dust off the cases and putting them into my Blu-ray player. I’ve seen a handful of prison movies and enough to know what it can be, shouldn’t be, actually is, history of it, and current reality of the institution that has grown its own wings and become a beast of its own. I liked both versions although the original matches more to the book than the remake. The original script was written primarily by Dalton Trumbo and the remake by Aaron Guzikowski. Instead of separating them, I’m going to semi blend both into one piece of synergy, keeping in mind Henri Charrière more than likely did not experience everything he wrote about. It was more an amalgamation of the prisoners he met and the things he witnessed, but he never lost sight of what he went through as well. This is a good thing because it’s almost unimaginable if he actually did go through all that and survived as well as he did.
Pisaries Creator’s Note: I tend to put spoilers in movies that were released for quite some time and although the remake is newer, the story is not. There will be some spoilers about Henri Charrière’s and other prisoners’ experiences below. If you care not to know about them, do not read any further, but do watch these movies if you haven’t already.
Papillon is based from the autobiography of Henri Charrière’s time in the French Guiana penal colony where the mortality rate at one time was 75%. The colony opened in 1852 and housed political prisoners at Devil’s Island, those in solitary confinement at Saint-Joseph Island, and the general population at Royale Island. Additional housing was later built. Much like other facilities that closed its doors because of poor conditions, rampant abuses, and public criticism, the French government stopped sending prisoners there in 1938 and the colony closed in 1953. While many prisoners died of violence, diseases, lack of nutrition, and forced labor, a few were lucky to escape and live. One of them was Henri although records say instead of escaping from Devil’s Island, he escaped from the main island. There has been authentication issues regarding his book as some argue Henri embellished his story. Either way it makes for a great story and this is why he probably angled it as an autobiography rather than fiction. There is no disputing he was housed at this general penal colony and was sentenced to live there for his entire life, starting in 1931.
To sound like a broken record, Papillon is an adaptation of Henri Charrière’s autobiographical book although more accurate is a narrative book by today’s standards. Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. are credited as the screenwriters and William Goldman as a contributing writer. The director was Franklin J. Schaffner. It was given an MPAA rating of R. It has a running time of 2 hours and 31 minutes. It is produced by Robert Dorfmann, Franklin J. Schaffner, and Ted Richmond. It is distributed by Allied Artists and Columbia Pictures. In the 2017 version, Aaron Guzikowski is the screenwriter who adapted his script from the books “Papillon” and “Banco” by Henri Charrière’s with Michael Noer as the director. This version also has a MPAA rating of R for violence including bloody images, language, nudity, and some sexual material. It has a running time of 2 hours and 13 minutes. It is produced by Czech Anglo Productions, Ram Bergman Productions, and FishCorb Films. It is distributed by Bleecker Street. Both movies included Louis Dega, a prisoner playing a major role in Henri Charrière’s attempts to free himself, and this is the platform on which the story progresses and evolves. Dega is played by Dustin Hoffman in the first movie and Rami Malek in the second. Charrière is played by Steve McQueen in the first movie and Charlie Hunnam in the second.
I will start with the summary of the original and then remake. You are pretty much thrust into the harshness of Henri Charrière life. It’s not going to be easy for him as he takes his walk of shame down a crowded street after being convicted of murder. He is with others who have been charged to carry out their sentence in the French Guiana penal colony and those who are sentenced 8+ years spend their whole life there. He hears about another prisoner named Louis Dega who is rumored to have lots of money. Henri meets the soft-spoken prisoner after Louis gets a little too close to violence. They come to a an agreement where they will help each other out once they arrive: Louis will provide Henri money for his future plans and Henri will provide Louis with physical protection against other prisoners and guards. They aren’t the only ones with plans as one prisoner tries to escape and the other hurts himself to be sent to the infirmary. The rest are given a lecture about what happens if they try to escape: the first attempt gets a man two years in solitary, the second attempt means gets a man five years in solitary, and a third attempt means the guillotine.
Because of Louis’s crime, he is sent to hard labor with Henri in tow. It is here Henri makes his first attempt at escaping, only to find you shouldn’t be so trusting, and is sent to solitary confinement. He is given nothing to do but pace back and forth and eat the little meals he receives each day. He is able to get by when he finds half a coconut in his bucket, but it doesn’t last long. This extra food given to him allows Warden Barrot (William Smithers), the chance to show how much worse it can get. He punishes Henri with small rations and makes him live without any light. This leads to a sort of mental breakdown where he imagines his life before he came there, illustrating his questioning the choices he made. When he is released from solitary confinement, he reunites with Louis and meets another prisoner, Maturette (Robert Deman) who is being preyed upon by a guard.
They come together and with the doctor’s help named Pascal (Val Avery), Henri makes a second escape attempt. Initially Louis only wanted to help him, but after it doesn’t go as planned, he is forced to go with Henri. They scale the walls and make it to the jungle, only to find another problem. Yet, luck is on their side as Henri, Louis, and Maturette find another boat with the help of a trapper and leper colony chief named Toussaint (Anthony Zerbe). They land in Colombia and are forced to separate right away as guns are pointed at them. Henri has no choice but to leave and meets a Spanish prisoner. He next wakes up in a village of natives who feed and house him. It is here he sees what true freedom really means. Their bond is solidified when Henri gives the leader a butterfly tattoo like his own.
He next finds refuge in a convent until he is betrayed again. He is sent back to the penal colony, and this time for five years in solitary confinement which leaves him looking older and weary. He somehow makes it through this period and is sent to Devil’s Island to a cabin for live the rest of his life. Despite his aging, he recognizes Louis tending to his garden and pig. More time spent with him reinforces Henri’s own need for freedom, even if it costs him his life. This time there is no jungle to battle through or boat to secure. He is high up with nothing to keep him afloat except coconuts strung together. After he says goodbye to Louis, he makes the jump to freedom he’s wanted throughout his incarceration.
The opening of the remake immerses you into the life of Henri Charrière prior to talking the walk to the boat that will carry him to his new life at the penal colony. It gives you a little window into Henri, allowing you some sympathy for his situation. He might be part of the Parisian underworld, but it doesn’t mean he’s a murderer for which he was framed. After being found guilty despite his alibi given from his lover, Nenette (Eve Hewson), he find himself walking close to Louis Dega. It is here where Louis’s wife tells him he will get out soon. As they are loaded onto the boat that will take the prisoners to South America, Henri settles into the madness as best he can. He is now in a place where every man is for himself, and despite this he still only takes physical action when it is only necessary. He comes to an agreement with Louis after helping him during an altercation. They exchange money for protection, giving you the first glimpse into prison reality. When they finally arrive on the island, a few try to escape in front of everyone. They don’t get very far and the ones that do eventually are brought back. It is at this moment Louis realizes this is not what he thought it would be and is truly scared for the first time since arriving.
After an escaped prisoner, Julot (Michael Socha) is guillotined, it’s Henri and Louis who have to move the body to its final resting place. It is here Henri makes his first attempt at escaping, but he doesn’t make it far. It leaves Louis dazed and frightened. Henri is given two years in solitary confinement where he can’t talk. The only human interaction is when he sticks his head out of the hole for a haircut. He is annoyed when another prisoner asks him how he looks, but after a prolonged amount of time there, he finds himself asking how he looks too to another prisoner. He does a lot of walking back and forth along with push ups until he is too weak to do anything. His rations have been cut in half after the guards find out someone has been supplementing his food with coconuts. After keeping his silence with Warden Barrot (Yorick van Wageningen) about this, he still survives and is released to the infirmary.
He reunites with Louis and makes an aquaintance with a prisoner named Maturette (Joel Basman). Reluctant at first to help Henri, Maturette decides to help him by sacrificing himself sexually. This helps clear the way for a successful second attempt at escaping. This time it isn’t only Henri, but also Dega, Maturette and Celier (Roland Møller). While they are now free, it isn’t all that great because there are too many people in their boat. This leads to an altercation where not everyone lives. They leave what happened behind as best they can and find solace at a convent in Colombia. Despite their willingness to live better lives, they are captured again and sent back to the penal colony.
After five years has passed, Henri is released from solitary confinement and sent to Devil’s Island to live for the rest of his life. He isn’t willing to settle for less and despite Louis who tries to convince him to stay, he commits to jumping from the cliff into the water where many have died before. In this third escape attempt, Henri swims to his makeshift coconut raft hoping to find freedom he desires.
I was thinking McQueen and Hoffman were going to be the better choice when it came to acting. Dustin Hoffman carries himself on the screen in such a way that you don’t blink too many times in case you might miss something. I have now seen two movies Steve McQueen starred in, this and The Magnificent Seven, and while his performance edged out Hunnam, it wasn’t by much because Hunnam’s portrayal of Henri was good and borderline great. Where McQueen’s performance was a little more aggressive in nature, Hunnam’s performance was just as insistent but more of a quiet nature especially when had to dig deep during his solitary confinement days or should I say years. This isn’t to say Hunnam wasn’t capable of showing his darker side when his character’s life depended on it. I thought Hunnam’s was a more likable Henri compared to McQueen’s. While he might not have had quite the range of McQueen, I found Hunnam more believable in terms of portraying and showing vulnerability and strength between himself and Malek. Yet, I preferred McQueen’s portrayal of Henri’s mental and physical breakdown during solitary confinement from his mind to his teeth. Hunnam lost around 35 pounds for this role where I couldn’t find anything about McQueen weight loss. I preferred Hoffman’s performance in that his unassuming and non-threatening manner on which he played Louis was done in an understated way that you forget it’s him. While this was done superbly, I missed some of the rare opportunities found in Malek’s portrayal of Louis such as the result of when you agitate him one too many times. While Hoffman and McQueen played characters who became friends because they were forced at first, I felt Malek and Hunnam were better able to portray their character’s friendship out of convenience at first and then because they truly wanted it by the end. I would say both were compelling and convincing, but overall I preferred Hunnam and Malek’s performances.
While the story was the same, there were some notable differences between the versions. Much of it had to do with the different time periods, but maybe also how the director envisioned the movie. Leprosy was incorporated in the original, but it doesn’t hold as much weight compared to today so I assume they took it out to make it a little more modern. The scene where Henri and Louis work together to fight an alligator is not in the remake yet had held some importance as it kept them together as prisoners. While the settings are richer in terms of color in the remake, there is less connection to the native animals or animals. There was more of an effort to incorporate a connection to the outside world in terms of loved ones in the remake as Dega longs for his wife and freedom to see her again. The original had Henri facing his demons with a panel of judges telling him he was guilty. I preferred the remake where it was more creative of him visualizing a safe and the meaning of it in his life. There was also a nod to his Parisian lifestyle that you hardly got in the original. The special effects were better as well such as the blood. It looked less like a combination of ketchup and food coloring. There were some scenes that could have been eliminated in the original. Therefore in terms of overall production, I preferred the 2017 version over the 1973.
As I bring this to a close, this movie had mixed reviews among top critics and viewers. While I would have liked to seen more closure about what happened with Nenette in the remake, it signals the fact most of the prisoners once released never returned to France. The biggest issue with the original was the length. After the book was released, the French government invited Henri back. He died in 1973, almost being 67 years old. Charles Brunier who claims he was the inspiration for Papillon died in 2007. He lived much longer at the age of 105.
Four Fingers of GREATNESS at 86%
Four Fingers of GREATNESS at 90%.