Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Dalton Trumbo, author of the haunting, Johnny Got His Gun, scripted Papillon with Lorenzo Semple Jr. who wrote the screenplay for Three Days of the Condor, these two joining forces with William Goldman. The result, the most expensive film of 1973, totaling $14 million in production costs and over $54 million in sales world wide.
The script was written by Henri Charrière's about his adventures in various penal colonies in French Guiana. Vincent Canby of the New York Times puts it best when he writes, "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."
And it's just the kind of visual sweep we at Way Out West love. Storytelling that grips your senses while awakening your spirit. Gritty scenes of war crimes set against equally stunning moments of beauty, friendship and life.
Given it's two and a half hour run time, it's still one of those films boys and fathers waited for each year to see on television when the studio felt it was time for a good re-run. Today, the original beats the 2017 remake by a long shot. It's not the same story, the characters are not the same people Trumbo captured on paper.
Steve McQueen may have been made to drive cars as he did in so many of his films, but he was equally made for this role as the wrongly accused Henri "Papillon" Charrière who is sentenced to life in the prison fortress of Devil's Island for a murder he didn't commit. Though heavily fictionalized, Papillon provides viewers with the one thing that drives anyone to go to great lengths to achieve, freedom.
Over and over, Papillon claims his innocence and fights for his own freedom against impossible and often cynical odds. Setting aside McQueen's real life of drugs, alcohol and womanizing and trusting Papillon's character is an easy choice as we follow him through the jungles and imprisonment with his fellow prison mate, Louis Dega played by Dustin Hoffman.
To this day, the ending leaves a haunting reminder of how so many things we desire and cherish in life can leave us lost and alone.
Years ago I was invited to a Hollywood awards ceremony to accept an award for a screenplay I had written. At the awards dinner, Jerry Goldsmith also received an award. I remember thinking, "wow, there is a name that has been around for centuries." Okay, maybe not centuries, but he started his composing career long before I was born with epic titles to include, Lilies of the Field, Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillon to name just a few in his long career.
The theme was written and performed when sound studios had orchestras and musicians had a passion to attain to the highest level of achievement. Then it's no wonder the theme is as beautiful as it is boisterous and haunting.
Up to the final scene and epilogue, Goldsmith's theme will resound in the back of your head.