Why bother remaking the successful 1973 biography of French convict Henri Charrière nicknamed PAPILLON who escaped from Devil’s Island in 1941? After all, that film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring two huge stars of the time Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman is still readily available on DVD.
A few reasons! One would be that no one would likely remember anything about the 1973 film. After all it is is is almost half a century ago. I can only remember two things about the 1973 film – Dustin Hoffman eating a cockroach and Steve McQueen jumping off the cliff in the final escape scene.
The new PAPILLON is not too bad. Despite not having as big star names, Charlie Hunnam (THE LOST CITY OF Z) and Rami Malek (I, ROBOT) inhabit their roles very convincingly. There is no cockroach eating scene but the food served actually looks not half bad, like the consommé with diced vegetables in a tin can. In fact, Papi (as Charrière is called in short) is tempted with the soup in order to reveal the name of his conspirator.
PAPILLON is the nickname of Charrière likely from his butterfly tattoo on his body. The film opens with his frolicking with his girlfriend, Nenette (Eve Hewson) in Paris after nicking some jewels from the big boss he was working for. Thus framed for murder, Charrière, is unjustly convicted of murder and condemned to life in a notorious penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, South America. Determined to regain his freedom, Papillon forms an unlikely alliance with quirky convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega, who in exchange for his protection, agrees to finance Papillon’s escape, ultimately resulting in a bond of lasting friendship.
For a film shot in Paris and set in France and French Guiana, not a word of French is spoken in the film. The filmmakers must thing speaking English with a French accent is sufficient, though the 1973 original had the same flaw. But true that commercial audiences rather hear dubbed dialogue than read subtitles.
If one can remember the 1973 version, this film is very similar as the new script by Aaron Guzikowski is based on Charrière’s autobiographies Papillon and Banco, as well as the former’s 1973 film adaptation, which was written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. In fact, credit is given to the script by Trumbo and Semple Jr. in the closing credits.
PAPILLON 2017 moves fast enough for its 133 running time. The film is not a film about escape but a film about the strained but lasting relationship of the two men. But the film’s only escape sequence with Papi, Dega and two other prisoners (Roland Moller and Joel Bassman) is the film’s highpoint, especially trying to survive a storm in a broken boat in the wide ocean. The hard prison conditions, though hard to watch make extremely intriguing fodder. One wonders how inhuman human beings can be. The film also demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit over mounting adversities. So, despite the dim outlook of the film’s heroes, it is still a film of hope and not despair.
It would be interesting to watch both films back to back to observe the different treatment of each director and actors towards this timeless material. Both films are equally well shot and absorbing and definitely worth seeing.