“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.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association