PAPILLON drew one lonely Oscar nomination, for Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful music score. This snub surprised and disappointed many, not least Steve McQueen, who gave maybe his best performance as the hero of this gripping, grueling 1973 epic, based on the prison torments and wild escapes of Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere.
Charriere himself acted as technical advisor on the lavish $13,500,000 production, shot mostly in Jamaica (subbing for French Guiana, 1931-41) by director Franklin J. Schaffner, proven up to the chore of grappling with sweeping true historical sagas, after Patton and Nicholas And Alexandra.
Charriere’s packed bestseller is well-scripted by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Temple, Jr. , who cull myriad characters and events into 151 minutes as Papillon and fellow convict ‘Louis Dega’ (Dustin Hoffman) endure the brutality of men and nature courtesy of French penal colonies in South America, including the notorious Devils Island.
Protagonists and audiences cling to such bits of humanity as can slip between the cracks in a narrative that includes not just the expected prison-movie dilemmas of sadistic guards, cutthroat inmates, slop for food and nightmarish stints in grotesque solitary confinement but also a “you get the tail” go at wrangling a huge crocodile.
During escape attempts there are vivid encounters with ruthless bounty hunters, Indian trackers armed with blowguns, a leper colony (Anthony Zerbe has a memorable cameo), an idyllic sequence in a welcoming native village by the sea, betrayal from a heartless nun, and a wild run through the jungle (great stuff with Gregory Sierra), with a go-for-broke leap off a waterfall that daredevil Steve did himself, calling it “one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.”
Hoffman is compelling as ever, his fragile but rational character contrasting with McQueen’s determined risk-taker. Diametrically opposite in acting styles and personality, the two superstars disparate intensity meshed onscreen, and I think the underrated action icon more than matches the lauded method man. McQueen’s Oscar-nominated ‘Jake Holman’ in The Sand Pebbles (his only nod from peers) was a more sympathetic character, and he was perfectly cast and first-rate, but this role was more challenging. The actor was dealt a bum hand by the Academy on this one.
So was composer Goldsmith, who lost to Marvin Hamlisch for The Way We Were. That deserved its Best Song statue for a great tune, but Goldsmith’s lovely work on this adventure is richer, some of his best.
Better regarded today by critics than it was at the time (lukewarm has turned to admiration), the public loved it to the tune of $54,000,000, the years 4th biggest hit. With excellent support from Woodrow Parfrey, William Smithers, Robert Deman, Don Gordon, Victor Jory, George Coulouris, Val Avery, Vic Tayback, Ratna Assan, John Quade, Bill Mumy, Liam Dunn, Peter Brocco, Richard Farnsworth. Charriere died a few months before the film was released,at 66, worn out from a whopper of a life.