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Film / Papillon (1973)

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Papillon is a 1973 prison film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. It is an adaptation of the 1969 autobiography of Henri Charrière.

Papillon (McQueen), a man wrongly convicted of murder, is put aboard a vessel to the Bagne de Cayenne, a Penal Colony in French Guyana. During the crossing, he meets Louis Dega, a forger. He offers to protect him, in exchange of money to fund his escape plan. Dega accepts. Once arrived in the penal colony, Papillon and Dega suffer ill treatment and Papillon tries to escape.

The book received another film adaptation in 2017.


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Papillon provides examples of:

  • The Alcatraz: The "Islands of Salvation" as a whole, Devil's Island in particular. The cliffs and currents make escape all but impossible.
  • Animal Motifs: The main character is nicknamed Papillon ("butterfy"). At some point, he even has to catch butterflies for the guards. This flying animal is probably a symbol of the character's need for freedom.
  • Answer Cut: Dega thinks that he has secured them easy duty, until a guard reveals that his family was swindled by Degas's counterfeiting scheme. He then tells them that they're going to "Kilo 40". Degas asks "What is Kilo 40?" The movie then cuts to a scene of them at Kilo 40, a particularly brutal work camp in the jungle.
  • Ass Shove: A critical survival tactic is shoving a small metal cylinder full of money up the rectum and using the cash to buy supplies or make bribes.
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  • Based on a Great Big Lie: The 1969 book by Henri Charrière is supposed to be his biography, but the author made up some events, and others were gone through by other people.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • First on the boat to French Guiana, where Papillon displays his pocket knife, which later is used by Papillon to defend Louis from two robbers.
    • When Papillon arrives in Guyana, Julot tells him about the leper colony and Devil's Island, that Papillon will later visit.
    • When the prisoners arrive in St-Laurent, the warden tells them that they will be sentenced to 2 years solitary confinement if they try to escape once and 5 years if they try a second time. It eventually happens to Papillon.
    • Later, when Papillon, Louis and Clusiot have escaped their captivity, Papillon is shown putting an axe in the back of his pants. The same axe is later used to kill an officer.
  • Con Man: Dega is one. He forged defense bonds.
  • Counterfeit Cash: Dega was busted as part of a defense bond counterfeiting ring.
  • Deadly Environment Prison: Devil's Island is surrounded by a sea full of sharks. A guard points out that they do not need to keep a watch on the prisoners.
  • Death World: The jungles of French Guiana are a nightmarish hellhole where France dumps its unwanted criminals to die. Between unforgiving climate, brutal work, half a dozen tropical diseases, cruel guards, and other murderous inmates, the penal colony has a high mortality rate.
  • Determinator: Papillon is determined to escape, even after two failed attempts that costed him 7 years of solitary confinement in total.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: France's entire penal system seems to hinge on this trope. The penal colony is terrible enough, but there are a number of other insanely cruel systems in place as well.
  • Doomed Fellow Prisoner: The old prisoner in the cell next to Papillon's in solitary confinement. He asks Papillon if he looks good. Papillon answers he does. Soon thereafter, Papillon notices that the cell is empty, which means the old prisoner died. Later, Papillon in turn asks his neighbour if he looks good.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It takes two failed attempts, and a collective seven years in solitary confinement, but Papillon finally manages to escape and lives the rest of his life a free man.
  • Facial Markings: Masked Breton, the trapper who directs Papillon, Maturette and Dega to the leper colony, has a tattoo that stretches across his entire face like a mask. He remarks that he regrets getting the tattoo, seeing how it’s the result of one-too-many drinks.
  • Faking Amnesia: Papillon pretends to have amnesia after he's caught receiving coconuts in solitary, thoroughly frustrating the warden who wants to know who was providing the contraband and for how long.
  • The Film of the Book: Based on a 1969 book of the same title.
  • Going Native: Papillon spent some time with a native tribe in South America after one of his escapes from the penal colony. He made friends with the chief, adopted a local lifestyle and subsistence, and has a relationship with a woman.
  • The Great Depression: The events depicted happen in the 1930's.
  • Great Escape: Papillon attempts three such plans.
  • Good Samaritan: Masked Breton, the lepers and the native tribe help Papillon when he is on the run. They receive nothing in exchange for their help. However, all the people he bribes betray him.
  • Hellhole Prison: The Penal Colony in general. The solitary confinement in particular: prisoners spend years alone in a small cell, with very few food, so they are reduced to eating insects.
  • "How Did You Know?" "I Didn't.": In the film, Papillon takes shelter in a leper colony after his escape, and is invited to share a cigar by their leader. Despite his fear of catching the disease, Papillon does so. There's a moment of silence from the leader (who clearly expected him to refuse) before he asks how Papillon knew he had dry leprosy, which isn't contagious. When Papillon replies that he didn't know, it breaks the ice between the two men.
  • Institutional Apparel: The prisoner wear an outfit with red and white vertical stripes.
  • Language of Love: Papillon makes gestures to communicate with his girlfriend in the native tribe village.
  • Mr. Exposition: Julot lived in the penal colony in the past, so he can give a lot of information to Papillon and the audience about it.
  • National Geographic Nudity: Papillon is adopted by some South American Indians. They wear very few clothes. In particular, the women are topless.
  • Never Smile at a Crocodile: At Kilo 40, Papillon and Dega are told to pick up a crocodile that was shot by a guard. When they try to, they realize that he is still alive, so they have to finish it off.
  • Nightmare Sequence: When Papillon is in solitary confinement, he dreams of appearing before a court in the middle of the desert and being sentenced to death for having ruined his life. Later, he dreams of being in France with Dega, and meeting Julot and Lariot there. Then he realizes Julot and Lariot are dead and that he will die too if he approaches them.
  • Penal Colony: The Bagne de Cayenne is a textbook example. The warden tells the prisoners that they can forget about France.
  • Playing Sick: An artform among convicts. The hospital has less security and because of strict scheduling protocol a well-timed hospital stay can provide time to buy better assignments or make escape preparations. And there are many, many ways to feign illness such as putting castor beans in his eyes or stabbing yourself and claiming the injury came from a visible fall.
  • Prison Ship: One is used to transport the prisoners from France to Guyana. Papillon meets Julot and Dega on board.
  • Prisoner's Work: At Kilo 40, the prisoners have to work really hard in the jungle. Other tasks are also performed in the penal colony, like catching butterflies.
  • Sacrificial Lamb:
    • Lariot is introduced as a young and frail prisoner. He is shot by a guard short after arriving in Guyana, because he dives from the quay into the sea in a desperate escape attempt.
    • Julot becomes friend with Papillon during the crossing. He is killed by the bounty hunters early in the film, after an escape attempt.
  • Safecracking: Papillon is an accomplished safecracker.
  • Sensitive Guyand Manly Man: Dega is an intellectual who must be protected by Papillon, a resourceful safecracker determined to escape.
  • Threatening Shark: There are sharks around Devil's Island and this is the primary reason why escaping from there is regarded as impossible.

Alternative Title(s): Papillon

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