Review: Papillon

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Like Franklin Schaffner’s previous picture Nicholas and Alexandra, Papillon improves markedly in the second half. Not that, in the manner of a true roadshow, Papillon has an intermission (at least not in its present berth at the Coliseum—don’t take bets on the second run). And in some respects that’s what it looked to be, a roadshow: 150-minutes running time, reported $13,000,000 cost, bestseller origin. But the producers’ spectacular ambitions are undercut time and again by two factors: by the fact that the essential dramatic interest inheres in the grotesquely confined agonies of one man and, beyond that, in the unlikely (which is to say, in entertainment terms, likely) friendship and love of two men; and by the very nature of Franklin Schaffner as a director—that he is also one of the producers serves not so much to contradict my idea of Schaffner the director as to index an ambivalence that is the richest source of tension in the movie. Schaffner came from TV, and while he has few of the obnoxious visual affectations of the TV-trained director, he tends to restrict the most significant actions and relationships in his films to spatial arenas that could be served very adequately by the tube rather than the Panavision screen: the real convention hustle in The Best Man takes place in hotel rooms, hallways, and basements; the tensest moments in his strange and (to me) very sympathetic medieval mini-epic The War Lord are confined to a small soundstage clearing or that besieged tower; the battle scenes in Patton are hardly clumsy, but the real show is George C. Scott; and Nicholas and Alexandra comes alive only after the royal family has been penned up under the watchful eyes of Ian Holm and then Alan Webb, far from the splendor of St. Petersburg or the shambles of the Great War.

Most of the time in Papillon the camera stays close enough to the players so that one has plenty of opportunity to scrutinize Hoffman’s improvised bifocals or the lines around Woodrow Parfrey’s squinty eyes; one can almost feel the jerk when Schaffner the co-producer reminds his directorial alter ego that this is supposed to be the Ben-Hur of great-escape pictures and the director shifts gears accordingly. Yet, look at the ambivalence through a polarizing lens and one discovers an almost contradictory effect: Papillon’s big moments of private defiance, like his I’m-still-here speeches to the hovering shadow of an impersonal, dehumanizing System, or most of his moments of tenderness with Dega (Hoffman) come off like laboriously striven-for dramatic high points in a high-school play, while the empty-space geometry of prison yards and the blackly comical image of prisoners’ heads tortuously stuck out of cell doors on signal recall the daringly upfront cartoonism of Patton‘s opening monologue in front of the world’s biggest American flag. It’s hard to see how such visual coups depend on the expenditure of $13,000,000, and I still come up believing that Schaffner’s best hope to develop into the individual talent he keeps suggesting is in there is to go back to a more conventional production scale. Papillon includes embarrassingly out-of-key elements like a sunshine-spangled beach interlude between our Devil’s Island runaway and a soft-eyed, nubile young thing, which is probably necessary obeisance to some episode in the book but comes and goes with such startling irrelevance that, again, one is more interested in Schaffner’s apparent discomfiture with the script requirement than in anything the script or scene has to offer. More to the positive point are those instances when a tense situation unexpectedly generates a complex and bizarre explosion of comedy that tells us more about the fury, the desperation, and the terribly volatile patience of these prisoners in hell than any number of lionizing helicopter shots; in these cases the unexpectedness—and the immediately communicable conviction—of such moments testify to Schaffner’s real originality as a director. I’m still here, Frank.

RTJ

PAPILLON
Direction: Franklin J. Schaffner. Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., after the book by Henri Charrière. Cinematography: Fred Koenekamp. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Production: Robert Dorfmann, Schaffner.
The Players: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Don Gordon, Woodrow Parfrey, Robert Deman, William Smithers, Anthony Zerbe, Ratna Assan, Victor Jory.

Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson