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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:

  • Agony of the Feet: After the nun rats him out and has him sent back to Devil’s Island, two of the guards cruelly breaks both of Papillon’s feet with the butt of their rifles on purpose as a way from preventing him from attempting any future escapes.
  • 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.
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  • Armor-Piercing Question: While planning his second attempt of escape Papillon asks Dega how much would he pay to get his wife off of Devil’s Island if the roles were reversed. Dega replies he would pay everything he had and Papillon asks how much would she pay to get him out. Dega’s silence really says it all considering she has the money and resources but isn’t really putting forth the effort to get him out.
  • Asshole Victim: No tears will be shed for the sadistic guard whom Pappy scalds and possibly blinds with boiling hot water, considering that he had clear intentions of beating Dega to death just for puking at Julot’s dead body.
    • Likewise for the hated Manhunters as well.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Ritcher agrees to help Papillon with a boat to escape for a hefty price but on the night when Pappy shows up for the boat, Richer sells him out to the Manhunters.
    • Also the Mother Superior whom listens and seems to sympathize with Papillon telling her the truth about how he was framed. She takes the pearls that Pappy gives her so he could have asylum but the next morning she callously hands him over to the French authorities even after EVERYTHING he told her. Her response in a very smug and condescending tone along with an arrogant smile on her face is that “That he has nothing to fear if he’s not truly sinful. God will watch over him” Talk about a false prophet in sheep’s clothing.
  • Break the Cutie: By the time Papillon and Louis reunite on Devil’s Island, Louis is clearly a disheartened mess from his time in solitary along with showing clear signs of an undiagnosed mental illness, institutionalization AND also having to deal with the fact his wife abandoned him to marry his lawyer.
  • Brutally Honest: The warden of the Solitary Confinement wing makes it clear to Papillon that it is their job to break him and not rehabilitate him.
  • Category Traitor: Manhunters are former prisoners who have become colonists and who hunt any attempted escapees for big rewards. Needless to say they’re not very popular with the prisoners.
  • 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.
  • Crossing the Desert: In the dream with the judge, Papillon is walking aimlessly across a barren desert. The fully dressed judge and jury appearing out of nowhere adds to the surreal and unsettling nature of the dream.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The Manhunters clearly took no mercy on Julot considering his slit throat and mangled stomach with his organs showing.
  • 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 Seeker: Papillon mentions to the prison doctor (who helps him with his second escape) if he double-cross him that he will kill him. The doctor mentions to Pappy that he would be doing him a big favor if he did kill him considering the guilt he lives with every day for killing his own entire family.
  • 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. The main one being: if the prisoners have sentences less than eight years and manage to serve them, they have to REMAIN in French Guiana as colonists and workers for a period that is equal to their original sentences and the ones who have sentences that exceeded eight years are forced to stay in Guiana for LIFE and will never see France again.
  • 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.
  • Dream Sequence: Papillon has a few of them, and they are very unsettling in understated ways.
  • 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.
  • Grand Inquisitor Scene: In one of Papillon's nightmares, he is admonished by a man dressed in the traditional and intimidating red robe of a French judge, who accuses Papillon of wasting his life. "The penalty for that... is death."
  • Hellhole Prison: The Penal Colony in general. The solitary confinement in particular: prisoners spend years alone in a small cell, with very little food, so they are reduced to eating insects.
    • The ship ride the prisoners take from France to Guiana is no picnic either as they are crammed into cages down below with barley any room to move, very few hammocks to sleep on, they have to deal with the unbearable hot tropical air, little food and water and they’re only allowed on deck for half an hour for any fresh air.
  • Honor Before Reason: Papillon absolutely refuses to give up Dega even if it nearly causes him to die from starvation.
  • "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 prisoners 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.
  • Luxury Prison Suite: Inverted to a degree. Devil’s Island isn’t a paradise but the inmates sent there get to have their own cabins, plant and grow their own vegetables, raise livestock and the security is lax. Of course the reason the security is lax is because the island is considered inescapable.
  • Mood Whiplash: The Dream Sequence with Julot and Lariot. It starts as a joyous occasion: Papillon and Dega dressed in fine suits, lively music playing, and a crowd welcoming them as heroes. It gets outright dark and disturbing when suddenly the music cuts off, everyone disappears, and Papillon sees Julot and Lariot, 2 fellow prisoners from an earlier scene, smiling and waving at him. He approaches the guys, the screen turns upside down, and their appearance up close becomes grim and corpse-like as they stare coldly in complete silence. It is very creepy, and quite literally Nightmare Fuel.
  • 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.
  • Nerd Glasses: Dega rocks some of the nerdiest ones you've ever seen.
  • 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.
  • Off with His Head!: One of the first things new inmates see at the prison is a guillotine, prominently displayed in the courtyard as a dire warning for anyone considering screwing around in any way. First, there is a demonstration using only vegetables. An actual execution takes place later on.
  • Penal Colony: The Bagne de Cayenne is a textbook example. The warden tells the prisoners that they can forget about France.
  • Pet the Dog: The only good thing the guards do for the prisoners during the entire movie as spray them with a water hose as the Prison Ship makes its way southwards and the prisoners suffer from the humid tropical air.
  • 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.
  • Police Brutality: The guards have no problem using excessive force to keep the prisoners in line and for very minor infractions. One example is when one of the guards at Kilo 40 nearly beats Dega to death just for puking at the sight of Julot’s mangled dead body. Thankfully Papillon steps in and saves him.
  • Prisons Are Gymnasiums: Averted in very brutal fashion. In Papillon’s first stint in Solitary for his first escape attempt he tries to stay in shape but after having his rations halved for refusing to tell the warden that it was Dega who sent him coconuts, he severely weakens and is near death after completing his term. The second time after serving five years for his second escape attempt, he emerges as a prematurely aged and physically broken man.
  • 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.
  • Sanity Slippage:
    • Papillon’s first stint in solitary. After getting his rations halved due to receiving the coconuts, having his cell screened for six months and near death from starvation? Let’s just say his sanity is barley hanging on for dear life.
    • Dega as mentioned above in Break the Cutie.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Lariot makes a desperate attempt at freedom by simply jumping off the Prison Ship and swimming away. Predictably, he doesn't get far and is immediately shot dead.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Dega is an intellectual who must be protected by Papillon, a resourceful safecracker determined to escape.
  • Spiteful Spit: The man who is executed gives both of the guards dragging him to the guillotine large gobs of his bodily fluids in a last act of defiance.
  • Sudden Soundtrack Stop: In Papillon's nightmare about Julot and Lariot, when the happy music cuts off and the dream starts getting creepy.
  • Threatening Shark: There are sharks around Devil's Island and this is the primary reason why escaping from there is regarded as impossible.
  • Would Hit a Girl: The prison doctor mentions to Pappy that the last prisoner he provided a boat for to escape was a “sex-murderer”-aka rapist-murderer who was shot to pieces by the guards six miles down the river during his escape.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The doctor also mentions to Papillon that he himself is in prison for killing his entire family. His wife AND his four little children.
  • You Are Already Dead: Papillon says this almost word for word when he encounters 2 other prisoners from an earlier scene, in one of his nightmares.

Alternative Title(s): Papillon

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