Franklin Schaffner’s Papillon is another oddity that somehow made the list. I suspect it is due to the film’s epic length and methodical pacing, since the film has very little impact to it aside from these aspects. Starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, Papillon seems to be too overly concerned with being a more dramatic take on The Great Escape than on being a great film of its own kind. While there’s a lot to appreciate about it, there’s very little to like, and that’s a big difference made even larger by films of this kind.
The film is some kind of demented cross between Deliverance and Bridge on the River Kwai. It details the escapade of Papillon, played by McQueen, who is sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit to a penal colony in French Guyana, where he meets Hoffman’s character Louis Dega, and forges an unlikely friendship. There, the years pass, escape attempts are made, and all the while, you just know he’s gonna make it, no matter what happens to him. This makes the experience of watching the film somewhat slow, since part of you secretly knows he’ll make it and wants to get it over with, or as Roger Ebert put it; “you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over.” There are a few things that do make this rather interesting, however. The one truly watchable aspect, thankfully a main aspect, is McQueen; he gives probably the best performance I’ve ever seen from him, and it was nothing but commanding to watch. The film’s most potent aspects come out during Papillon’s extended stays in solitary confinement, where it’s just one man against the system, determined to stick it out despite the adversity, even after his rations are cut in half and he starts hallucinating on the verge of death. That was the fascinating stuff, even if it was kind of one-note.
Of course, it helps considerably that the film is very pretty; the cinematography has a glow about it, even in the drab and dirty solitary cell Papillon finds himself in over and over, that seems almost infectious, like being near an overly happy person. Not that Papillon is happy; quite the opposite, though it does have touches of optimism about the strength of the human spirit. Still, this wasn’t too bad; like I said, I found a lot to appreciate about this film, even if there really wasn’t too much to actually like. My main problem with it was the length; thanks to the film’s slow and deliberate pacing, the film feels even longer than its already long two-and-a-half hours, and I’m sure there’s some material in there that could’ve been cut, easily. Of course, it might not have been the same drawn-out experience, and maybe that’s what is to be appreciated most about Papillon. Still doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult to sit through all the way, though.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10