Movies We Like
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.
For director Franklin J. Schaffner, it’s another notch in his impressive resume belt, making him quietly one of the more underrated talents of the era (an era of much more celebrated directors). Papillon was his follow-up to two even better films, Planet of the Apes and Patton (and Nicholas and Alexandra), before rounding out the decade with the Hemingway misfire Islands in the Stream and a ridiculously entertaining The Boys from Brazil (based on a popular book by Ira Levin). Unfortunately the '80s would see Schaffner totally lose his mojo with four duds in a row (including the unwatchable Luciano Pavarotti vehicle Yes, Giorgio), before passing away in ’89. But he had already earned his stripes as a major director of challenging material both physically and historically, and Papillon certainly added to his reputation.
For McQueen, with the exception of his ensemble cast films (The Great Escape, The Towering Inferno and The Magnificent Seven) and a one-time powerhouse on-the-rise female costar (Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair), Papillon is his one time sharing the top of the bill with another major superstar at the height of his creativity. Hoffman was in the middle of that great run that earlier began with The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man and Straw Dogs and then would continue after Papillon with Lenny, All The President’s Men, Marathon Man and finally Kramer vs. Kramer. Only Jack Nicholson can rival him for more important roles during that period. Papillon could have played like an act-off between the two stars, but they both generally go for the low-key and while it seems like it’s a chance for McQueen to show off his chops and earn a place in the front of the acting class with Hoffman, the script lets him down. The actors physically dig in deep and the film obviously offered them great challenges, but the script doesn’t get us below their surface discomfort, making the film a great adventure film, but not as rich of a character study. But even in his character’s stoicism, McQueen still manages to ooze charisma, and it makes you wonder what he might have been able to do with a role in another top film like a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or a Dog Day Afternoon or an Apocalypse Now (director Coppola tried to cast him). Unfortunately by the late '70s McQueen got cancer and missed out on many potentially interesting roles before he died in ’80 at the age of fifty. But even if it’s just a solid triple instead of the rarer homerun, Papillon is still the last important film for this fascinating Hollywood luminary and well worth the effort.