Papillon

Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973. Starring: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman. Drama.

After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)

Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 5, 2015 11:18am

The Great Escape

Dir: John Sturges, 1963. Starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, James Donald. War Movies.

The Great EscapeAfter putting together a super team for the exciting western The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges assembled the rat-pack for the much duller western, Sergeants 3; so down but not out, Sturges reconvened some of his Magnificent Seven cast for his masterpiece, the WWII POW epic The Great Escape. With apologies to King Rat, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Empire of the Sun, The Hill, and even Victory, the official, no- arguments-allowed Big Three of POW flicks are (in order of release): Stalag 17 then The Bridge on the River Kwai, and finally The Great Escape; you can argue which of the Big Three is tops, but all three are wonderful and will rank in any war movie best-of list.

Like the recent action flicks The Expendables or The Avengers, The Great Escape is about assembling the team of super cool (now familiar) faces. The Magnificent Seven put the young supporting Steve McQueen on the A-List. Here, he’s the top dog and it may be his most memorable role; joined by two of the other Seven co-stars, Charles Bronson and James Coburn (who would both go on to be big stars in the years to come), with James Garner bringing his awe-shucks charm that would captivate TV audiences for decades and, rounding out the team, the British actors Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and James Donald (who was also in The Bridge on the River Kwai), lending some class to the team.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 11, 2012 5:39pm

Westworld

Dir: Michael Crichton, 1973. Starring Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin. Science-Fiction.

Long before writing the novel Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton created another futuristic amusement park where everything goes wrong. Directing his first feature, Westworld, the result is much more credible than the later Spielberg directed flick. Closer to the vibe of cult-television show, The Wild, Wild West, than the Gene Autry serial Phantom Empire, Crichton’s film may be the best science-fiction / western Hollywood has ever produced.

A new high tech adult playland offers vacationers the choice between Medievalworld, Romanworld or Westworld. Vacationers get to enjoy exotic pleasures both in danger and even sexual, interacting with perfectly human looking androids. Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and his much cooler pal John Blane (James Brolin) opt for Westworld. It’s an Old West experience straight out of Bonanza, with saloon fights, shootouts, and robot brothels (though the guys are usually left to wonder if that was a human or a droid). The cowardly Martin has a run in with a gunfighter of few words, likely a droid, played by the famously shaved headed Russian tough guy Yul Brynner (wearing his same cool black outfit from The Magnificent Seven), killing him gives Martin some new found bravado.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 4, 2011 6:36pm
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