Don Gordon, Bill Mumy, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman in Papillon, image courtesy Allied Artists
Director Franklin J. Schaffner and Allied Artists delivered Papillon to movie theaters in 1973. Steve McQueen has the title role, with Dustin Hoffman as counterfeiter Louis Dega.
Henri Charriere’s Papillon Book
Papillon is based on the book of the same name by Henri Charriere (1906-1973). Known as ”Papillon” in the French underworld, Charriere was sent to the infamous penal colony at French Guiana in 1931 following a murder conviction in Paris. Always maintaining his innocence, Charriere made his escape in 1945 and later committed his life story to paper. The result was Papillon, an international bestseller published in 1969.
European producer Robert Dorfmann purchased the screen rights to Papillon for $600,000. Robert Benton and David Newton were hired to write the screenplay, but their draft proved unsatisfactory, as did a subsequent version by William Goldman.
Franklin J. Schaffner Directs Papillon
Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. penned the eventual screenplay for Corona-General and Solar Productions. Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton, The Boys from Brazil), who collected $750,000 for his services, directed. Jerry Goldsmith fashioned the original music score and Fred J. Koenekamp served as cinematographer.
Steve McQueen (Papillon) and Dustin Hoffman (Louis Dega) head the cast. Other players include Victor Jory (Indian Chief), Don Gordon (Julot), Anthony Zerbe (Toussaint), Robert Deman (Maturette), Woodrow Parfrey (Clusiot), Bill Mumy (Lariot), George Coulouris (Dr. Chatal), Ratna Assan (Zoraima), William Smithers (Warden Barrot), Val Avery (Pascal), Gregory Sierra (Antonio), Vic Tayback (Sergeant), Mills Watson (Guard), Ron Soble (Santini), Don Hanmer (Butterfly Trader), Barbara Morrison (Mother Superior) and John Quade (Masked Breton).
Papillon Filmed in Spain and Jamaica
Made for $12 million, Papillon was filmed primarily in Spain and Jamaica. A replica of the original prison at French Guiana was constructed in the former, with Jamaica’s dense jungles providing the necessary tropical background.
Papillon proved to be a tough shoot, hampered by financial problems, a work stoppage, a petty feud involving stars McQueen and Hoffman and McQueen’s burgeoning weight problem exacerbated by his love of Red Stripe Jamaican beer.
Also, Papillon was a very physically demanding picture, with Steve McQueen bearing much of the brunt. In one scene, McQueen’s character is hauled down near the ship’s engine for punishment. This required McQueen to be chained with his hands behind his back while lying on his stomach, making a feeble attempt to nourish himself from a plate of bread and water.
McQueen and Dustin Hoffman were also required to wrestle a partially-drugged crocodile. McQueen jumped on first, followed by the wary Hoffman, with both actors hanging on while trying to avoid the croc’s thrashing tail.
Amazingly, despite all of the problems, Papillon completed filming in May 1973, one week ahead of schedule.
Papillon and the Penal Administration of French Guiana
Papillon opens in a prison yard in France, where the assembled convicts are duly informed that they are now the property of the Penal Administration of French Guiana. The shackled cons are then marched through the streets and loaded onto a waiting transport ship.
The voyage to French Guiana is an eventful one, with Papillon meeting Louis Dega, a master counterfeiter of National Defense Bonds Series 1928. The two enter into a pact, with Dega agreeing to underwrite any escape attempt in exchange for Papillon’s protection against other convicts. The test comes early, when Papillon is forced to slash two goons with a hidden shiv after they make a move on his new partner.
The prison at French Guiana lives up to its infamous reputation, characterized by brutal working conditions, corrupt guards, crazed inmates, solitary confinement and of course the dreaded guillotine, which is used for more serious infractions. Papillon and Dega eventually manage to escape with help from a nearby leper colony, but are eventually recaptured after being betrayed by a Mother Superior at a convent in Colombia.
Papillon Release, Reviews
Papillon was released on December 16, 1973.
“Papillon…is a big, brave, stouthearted, sometimes romantic, sometimes silly melodrama with the kind of visual sweep you don’t often find in movies anymore,” reported Vincent Canby of The New York Times (12/17/73).
“When Steve McQueen finally escapes from Devil’s Island we’re happy more for ourselves than for him: Finally we can leave, too,” observed Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (12/16/73).
Papillon Box Office, Oscar Nomination, Trivia, DVD
- Papillon grossed $22.5 million at the American box office, good for the #4 position on the list of the top moneymaking films of 1973.
- Papillon earned one Oscar nomination: Best Original Dramatic Music Score (Goldsmith).
- Producer Robert Dorfmann had originally envisioned French star Jean-Paul Belmondo in the title role.
- Steve McQueen’s salary: $2 million plus a percentage of the gross; Dustin Hoffman’s salary: $1.25 million.
- Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo appears as the prison commandant in the opening of the film.
- Director Franklin Schaffner thought Henri Charriere’s memoir was largely fiction. “Schaffner told me that he never believed half the things he (Papillon) said in the book, that Charriere was a lying son-of-a-bitch,” recalled actor Don Gordon.
- Henri Charriere followed Papillon with another book titled Banco (1972).
- On DVD: Papillon (Warner, 2005).
“As for France, the nation has disposed of you. France has rid herself of you altogether. Forget France, and put your clothes on,” Dalton Trumbo announces to the assembled convicts before sending them off to French Guiana.
Ah, c’est la vie…