“We are not going to reform you. We are not priests, we are processors. We process dangerous men into harmless ones. We will break you physically, spiritually and up here!”
With this brutal philosophy the French ran their penal colony in 'Guiane' (French Guiana, South America). Insensitive, inhuman and impregnable – these island jails housed the high-risk prisoners serving prolonged terms. The only escape from these hellholes was death. Exhaustion, starvation, suicide, murder, execution, malaria … there were many ways in which death could strike the inmates.
1973 film-Papillon brings to screen that hellish prison-life through Henri Charrier's amazing true story. Charrier, nicknamed 'Papillion' thanks to a butterfly tattoo on his chest, was wrongly sentenced for life for a murder, which he never committed. Right from the beginning of his jail term, Papillon (Steve McQueen) is sure of what he wants to do. He wants to escape! But so difficult is the task that no one before him has succeeded and now, no one even is trying!
But Pappi (as he is fondly called) is made of sterner stuff. He befriends Dega (Dustin Hoffman) – a frail-looking but intelligent and cash-rich counterfeiter. What begins as a selfish partnership, soon turns into a much deeper friendship. Together, can they finally sail to their freedom?
Papillon is a graphic portrayal of a dark world about which our so-called civilized world knows little. The harsh living conditions, the police atrocities, the inner wheeling-dealing, the all pervading sense of dehumanization – the film (which is based on the book by the same name) depicts every gory detail. Papillon's repeated escape attempts, heart-breaking failures and back-breaking punishments do break him physically. But in that world of torture, bribery, double-crossing and backstabbing, he still manages to keep his spirit intact, thanks to Dega's friendship and his own undiminished quest for freedom.
McQueen plays the title-role well but Hoffman's Dega is even better. Much before the brilliance of Shawashank Redemption (1990), it was Papillon that had showed the world that no jail is strong enough to break a determined man's will! Go, watch it, it is worth it!