Patton, Planet of the Apes and Papillon. These aren’t just films on the 1001 list beginning with the same letter, but also the three entries on the list by Franklin J. Schaffner – a director who I wouldn’t have been able to name, but am now retroactively amazed at the quality and range of his output on this list. Really puts Godard’s eight entries and their lack of difference into perspective.
Okay, that was a low blow – but wow to have directed one of the most iconic sci-fi movies of all time and then go on to win an Oscar for a war film and then produce this story based on the (somewhat fictionalized) memoir of a man who was shipped off to the French penal colony of French Guyana and had to endure it’s many many hardships and made a number of escape attempts.
Weirdly the first time I had heard of this penal colony was not in this film, but in an episode of Time Tunnel. Who knew, a TV show with such a goofy credit sequence would end up being mildly educational. Although, obviously the on location shoots in tropical locales as depicted in Papillon really helped to put the isolation and the danger into a better perspective than the reusable sets of Time Tunnel.
If you are going into Papillon and are expecting something close to The Great Escape – then get ready for something a lot grittier. There is no levity in this film, instead it is a pretty straightforward and sometimes brutal tale of what man will do to one another – for good or for ill.
We see our main character – the titular Papillon, played by Steve McQueen in typically great form – go through two separate stints in solitary confinement (the second one being for five years) where he is starved, ages severely and ends up eating insects to make up for the lack of food. We also see him go through all this whilst maintaining his own thirst for freedom and his honor in not giving up the names of the people that helped him. It is one hell of a role and McQueen is great in it.
Over the course of the film’s two and a half hours you really do see the best and the worst in people. There’s the honour in friendship, then there’s the mother superior who steals the main character’s pearls and sells him back to the penal colony where he ends up spending 5 years in solitary. There’s ingenuity, desperation, joy in murder and betrayal by those back home. It’s an interesting film that is an uptick on the last few I have seen for this list.