Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Warner, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, French, single side-dual layer, 39 chapters, "The Magnificent Rebel" documentary, theatrical trailer, rated PG, 150 min., $19.98, street date 12/14/99.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Original Dramatic Score, 1974.
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Starring Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Deman.
They called him Papillon, meaning "butterfly." If only he had wings to go with the name. Unable to fly, Henri Charriere virtually willed himself free. He persisted until he did the impossible: escape Devil's Island.
Based on Charriere's bestseller and shot in Spain and Jamaica, Franklin J. Schaffner's film of Papillon united two stars at key career junctions. After a decade of fine work in The Great Escape, The Sand Pebbles and Bullitt, Steve McQueen found in Charriere another ideal tough guy role. Coming off The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and Little Big Man, Dustin Hoffman again distinguished himself as Dega, Charriere's scruffy friend.
While November was "war movie" month for DVD - what with the releases of Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Patton, Apocalypse Now, The Longest Day, and Tora! Tora! Tora! - December shaped up as "prison film" month. Look at this roster: The Shawshank Redemption finally made it out, plus we got 1973's Papillon and... uh, well, I guess that was it. Not much of a theme after all!
But those two films offer some similarities in addition to their secure locales. Most significant is the common theme: the triumph of the human spirit. The main difference between the two stems in regard to how this area is explored.
Shawshank tended to be more of a character drama and veered much more heavily toward the emotional; while the film wasn't usually heavy-handed in that regard, it did try to push our sentimental buttons. Papillon, on the other hand, is told in a much more straightforward manner. Director Franklin Schaffner never forces the theme on the viewer; it's demonstrated wholly by the actions of our hero, Papillon (Steve McQueen) as he continually perseveres and survives in the face of overwhelming odds.
As such, Schaffner really doesn't pepper us with comments about how overwhelming those odds were. He presents the material coolly and objectively but never inundates the audience with the information, whereas Shawshank was a much "talkier" movie that tended to spell things out for the viewers. The characters of Papillon don't talk - they do.
One other interesting difference between the two films concerns their protagonists. Both are jailed for murders they claim they didn't commit. In Shawshank, we learn absolutely whether or not Andy Dufresne pulled the trigger. On the other hand, we never gain any insight into what the truth of Papillon's situation was; the character repeatedly states his innocence, but no evidence ever appears to support that claim.
These comments shouldn't be seen as a slam on Shawshank, which I actually prefer as a film. Is it somewhat heavy-handed and sentimental? Yes, but it's also very effective and entertaining. While I admired the objectivity of Papillon, it nonetheless left me somewhat cold. I liked the movie and thought it made for a fairly effective jailbreak picture, but it never really drew me in and got me involved in its world; I always felt like an outsider.
Papillon presents a surprisingly strong performance from Steve McQueen. I'm too young to have witnessed much of his work during his lifetime since he died when I was 13; in fact, The Towering Inferno is the only McQueen movie I saw theatrically. As such, I've derived an opinion of him through video, and I've generally seen him as a fairly stoic tough guy with little range.
I can't say that McQueen deviates greatly from that persona as Henri "Papillon" Charriere, but he provides enough emotional variety to impress me. Well, "emotional" is probably a stretch - he remains pretty stoic throughout the film - but he's able to capture different facets of Papillon's personality nicely and reacts realistically to various situations. Most impressive was the work he offered during Papillon's long stay in solitary confinement; McQueen does a splendid job of depicting the frazzled state into which Papillon entered.
Less impressive was Dustin Hoffman as Dega, Papillon's nerdy little friend. To be frank, I've always thought Hoffman was a decent but overrated actor; he tends to rely on caricatures too frequently, and that's his problem here. Dega never seems like an actual person; he's a cartoon, just like Rain Man. Dega would have seemed more real if Hoffman had gone lighter on the funny voice and various tics.
One unusual aspect of Papillon - and another reason why the film seems so objective - is its relative lack of a musical score. Oh, it has a score, by Jerry Goldsmith, who'd also collaborated with Schaffner on Patton. However, it appears very sporadically for much of the film. In fact, it doesn't even enter until about 20 minutes in to the picture; I jumped when the music played because I didn't anticipate it. That piece lasts a few minutes and then we don't hear any more music for about 20 more minutes, when we again encounter a brief bit of score.
And so it continues throughout most of the film. The final half an hour of Papillon features the most music; it's still not completely standard at that time, but it's a lot more common. I didn't care for this approach because it undermined the usefulness of the music. When we heard the score, it was so unusual that it stood out like a sore thumb; it was all I concentrated on that those times. The music should accentuate the action, but it called too much attention to itself by its relative absence. Schaffner should have either omitted the score altogether or made it more ubiquitous; as it stood, it provided a negative effect on the film.
Ultimately I have to give Papillon a mildly positive review. I liked the movie and thought it told a compelling story, but the matter of fact way in which the tale was told left me fairly cold. While I'm definitely not a fan of films that hammer home their themes, I felt Papillon would have benefited from a warmer approach.
Warner Bros. present Papillon on DVD in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered disc; although it doesn't say so on the case, the film has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I found Papillon to look generally decent but to present a fair number of flaws. Sharpness usually seems good, though some softness occasionally crops up for no apparent reason; similarly framed scenes will look fine sometimes but then seem slightly hazy at others. Moire effects and jagged edges occur but only to an extremely minimal degree.
The print utilized for the transfer present a fairly high degree of faults. Hairs and scratches appear occasionally, but white and black speckles are the biggest problem; they show up regularly. I didn't detect any signs of grain or digital artifacts, though.
Colors are inconsistent but generally somewhat muddled. They don't seem badly off but vaguely appear too dense or heavy; flesh and earth tones in particular seem oversaturated much of the time. Other hues, such as reds or greens, look very good, however. Black levels and shadow detail both seem very average. Ultimately, Papillon appeared eminently watchable - even with all the flaws I've listed, it still appeared pretty decent - but it could use some work.
Papillon offers a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that's also a mixed bag. The weakest aspect of the audio concerns the quality of its effects and - especially - dialogue. Both seem consistently flat and dull and lack much life. Speech is usually intelligible but occasionally appears too muffled to easily understand.
The quality of that inconsistently utilized musical score, however, is terrific. When it pops up, it sound fantastic, with very clean and detailed highs and a nice low end as well. Stereo imaging in the front channels is fairly ordinary for sound effects; some left and right speaker-specific audio occurs, and we even hear some passable panning at times, but the image generally stays in the center. Not so for the music, which offers a glorious stereo presentation. Some gentle ambience appears from the rears - almost entirely sound effects - that adds a little to the experience. For its age, the audio of Papillon works well, but it would have received a much higher rating if only the dialogue were more intelligible.
Despite its low MSRP of $19.95, Papillon manages to include a few supplements. Most significant is a documentary called "The Magnificent Rebel". This program lasts for 12 minutes and 20 seconds. It's not a great piece, but it does offer some points of interest, most notably being some actual footage of Charriere himself. He collaborated with the filmmakers and we see him talking about the authenticity of the set. It's not tremendously fascinating, but it's kind of cool. The rest of the piece is pretty basic but watchable.
In addition, the DVD features the theatrical trailer and a pretty good text biography for Schaffner. Note that when you access the talent files menu, you'll see a whole bunch of other names listed. However, you'll only be able to access an entry for Schaffner. That's not a glitch; for some reason, Warner Bros. have started offering this form of bait and switch on many of their $19.95 DVDs. (Excalibur and Shawshank did it as well, though at least the latter provided three biographies instead of just one.)
Ultimately, Papillon is a DVD for which I'll grant a lukewarm recommendation. It's a good film, but it left me somewhat flat. The DVD is decent but unspectacular. However, since it's an overall decent package that sells for a low price, it's something you may want to obtain.