Genre Grandeur – Papillion (1973) – Rhyme and Reason

For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Prison Films, here’s a review of Papillion (1973) by SG of Rhyme and Reason

Thanks again to Jay of Life Vs. Film for choosing this month’s genre.

Next month’s Genre has been chosen by Ryan of Ten Stars or Less.  We will be reviewing our favorite Boston Film(s).

According to Ryan’s research, this is probably the best list of movies set in Boston

Here is what appears to be the official/unofficial list of everything related to Boston movies

Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Apr by sending them to

Try to think out of the box! Great choice Ryan!

Let’s see what SG thought of this movie:


Papillon (1973)



They said, “You’ll stay;

You’ll work; you’ll pay

Your debt back to society.

And for your crime,

You’ll serve your time

And suffer in sobriety.”



Or so they thought,

For, till I’m caught,

I’ll prove life’s worth escaping for.

I’ll plan, I’ll wait,

Won’t yield to fate,

For I’m a free man to my core.




MPAA rating:  R (mainly due to a guillotine scene)



I went into Papillon having no idea it was a prison movie. For some reason, I had it confused with another Steve McQueen vehicle, Bullitt, and was expecting car chases. Instead, I watched a rather potent prison film, headlined by a strong performance from McQueen, who trades in the rebel charm of The Great Escape for an even more persistent will to escape that grows more desperate with time.


Condemned for murder and shipped off to a French Guiana prison, Henri Charrière (McQueen), also known as Papillon for his butterfly tattoo, meets infamous forger Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) on the prison ship, and the two make a mutually advantageous pact to survive. Dega awaits his release but needs protection, while Papillon needs Dega’s money to escape, but naturally escape is easier whispered about than done.


While important considering its genre, I found it rather limiting that the film’s central theme is as single-minded as Papillon when it comes to escape. Papillon’s entire character is bent on escape, and while he bonds somewhat with his fellow prisoners, Dega in particular, there’s no introspection or depth beyond the will to escape. He’s not even escaping to anything, just freedom in general, though a dream suggests that he fears wasting his life. While Papillon’s character is rather shallow in that regard, consisting completely of loyalty and determination and little else, McQueen nails those traits expertly. When he’s suffering at the hands of his captors, there are scenes that feel like career-best moments for him and made me wonder why he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor that year. It’s a thinly written character, but McQueen makes the most of it. Hoffman as the more timid Dega is an excellent contrast to Papillon’s toughness and is arguably more interesting with his indecision over whether to escape or wait out his sentence.


Perhaps the most glaring fault in Papillon is an extended scene during one of Papillon’s more successful escape attempts, wherein he lives for a time in a village of beachside natives. It’s far too long and serves absolutely no purpose, except to provide a minor plot device, indulge in some naturalistic nudity, and drop hints of romance that go nowhere. Maybe the unnecessary jaunt came from the real Papillon’s account, but it drags the pace down and is dropped so abruptly that the filmmakers would have done well to minimize or delete it entirely.


Aside from this overlong filler, Papillon has a story focused on freedom, even if most of its runtime broods in captivity. Where the writing sometimes falls short, the acting picks up the slack, and you can’t say McQueen doesn’t give the role his all, even refusing a stunt double and jumping off a cliff himself in a pivotal scene. The torments of Papillon’s solitary confinement are especially affecting, as is the struggle between preserving hope and becoming institutionalized, distinguishing this as a classic prison film. It’s no Shawshank, though.


Best line: (Dega) “Blame is for God and small children.”



Rank: List Runner-Up



2017 S.G. Liput

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3 thoughts on “Genre Grandeur – Papillion (1973) – Rhyme and Reason

  1. Pingback: Genre Grandeur March Finale – White Heat (1949) – Life Vs. Film |

  2. Reblogged this on Rhyme and Reason and commented:
    Here’s my review of Papillon for MovieRob’s March Genre Grandeur of Prison films. Steve McQueen shines in this good, not great, memoir of one man’s escape attempts from a French prison in South America. Check out the other prison film reviews for this month too!


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