“Based on a true story” can still mean there is some artistic
license evident here, but that may be equally true about the original book
(published in 1969) and the first film attempt (in 1973).
Henri Charriere prospered in 1920's France as a safecracker and
underworld figure, who didn't have enough sense not to skim the proceeds
for his Mob Boss. Next thing
he knows, he's framed for a murder he didn't commit (though there were
plenty of other crimes for which he was never convicted).
In the early 1930's, France sent several thousand prisoners to its
colony on the Atlantic coast of South America, known as French Guiana.
There, prisoners were sent to work camps, and even if they served
their term, they were not given passage back to France.
Well, that's one way to keep the riffraff out.
Henri was known as “Papillon” because of the butterfly tattoo
on his chest, but also because of the way he seemed to be able to fly out
of prison cells. He escaped
several times, but each time he was caught and returned, the punishment
was more severe: first, it was
two years in solitary confinement. Then,
it was five years in solitary. Then,
it was banishment to Devil's Island, a supposedly inescapable penal colony
off the coast. But the movie
shows “Papillon” escaping from there, as well, by taking a big leap
into the sea, and using a bag full of coconuts as a flotation device.
What goes unspoken in the movie, even during the final credits, is
that the French authorities dispute many of Charriere's claims, citing
prison records that prove otherwise. They
also accuse Papillon of appropriating stories of other inmates and
incorporating them as his own. Well,
if that's the case, it won't be the first instance of plaigirism in print.
Charlie Hunnam plays Henri with the grim determination of one of
those strong, silent types, like Steve McQueen, who actually played Henri
in the 1973 version. His
prison buddy is Louis Dega (Rami Malek, yes, the man who's going to play
Freddy Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” later this year, a decidedly
different role). Louis, a
veteran counterfeiter, makes a bargain with Henri, the tough guy:
personal protection in exchange for money to bribe their way to
freedom. Their best-laid plans
oft go awry, but their comradeship never wavers, even when they fail.
This is not a fun film. There
are some gruesome torture scenes, and a lot of screen time watching Henri
look at the blank walls of his cell (though finally, when he becomes
hallucinatory, we at least see something different, even if it is like a
dream sequence). The coup de
grace, ironically, is the inclusion of the guillotine as a means of
dispatching a particularly troublesome prisoner (and greatly intimidating
the rest). Ironically, despite
this tale of personal woe and hardship, there were many other Frenchmen at
the time who were dying in World War II, spending years in personal danger
not of their own making, which is never mentioned here.
Do we want to see this Papillon eventually win his freedom?
And if so, how old does he have to be?
Your answer will say more about your own values than the
contemporaries of Henri Charriere.