A pair felons strike a pact on their way to a penal colony on the very aptly named Devil’s Island. The eponymous Henri “Papillon” Charrière is hired to protect the wealthy Mr. Dega from the other conniving prisoners. In return, Papillon will be rewarded with a sum of money, with which he hopes to engender an escape. However, in the brutal prison world of fiendish guards and treacherous criminals, and beyond this world only a beautiful but deadly country rife with fresh and unending dangers, Papillon’s dreams of escape stray only farther with each passing day.
A great deal of the film’s charm lies undoutedly in the striking differences between its two heroes. Could McQueen’s strong and rugged Papillon be any more different from Hoffmans’s weedy, bespectacled little Dega? In terms of temperament, they also seem to have hardly anything in common. Dega is obedient and rather assured; he is ready to play the system, bribing the guards and calmly awaiting the release papers which he is certain his lawyer will procur. Papillon, on the other hand, is fearlessly defiant. When he sees Dega pounded mercilessly by a guard, Papillon comes to his aid, landing himself a long stint in solitary confinement.
This brave act of selflessness moves Dega deeply, and a quiet friendship ensues between the two. It is this friendship that serves as the anchor and emotional core of the film. Knowing that his friend now starves in a miserable cage, Dega regularly smuggles in coconuts to Papillon, thus keeping him alive. The loyalty of Papillon is also confirmed when the guards find out about these very happenings. Papillon has his rations (of thin slop) cut in half, and his cell shrouded in absolute darkness. He falls near the cusps of instanity, but still he refuse to name his benefactor.
During this time Papillon has a series of ominous dreams. Perhaps the most unforgettable is the one which takes place on a sunny beach. We recognise Papillon in a light beige suit, his fine clothing matching perfectly the sand on which he walks. Sitting in a painfully rigid line is a jury, and in the middle a judge in striking red and navy. The sharply contrasting colours of the two ‘sides’ seem not unlike pieces on a chessboard. Yet the most haunting aspect of the scene is not the visual, but rather what the judge has to say to Papillon. He accuses him not of murder, for of this our hero is actually innocent. Papillon is charged with something althogether more abominable.
I accuse you of a wasted life.
And as Papillon faces his allegorical opponent of the judge, he is like a lone king, forced into checkmate and forced into conceding his defeat. ‘Guilty,’ Papillon chants repeatedly as he walks away.
When finally released from solitary, Papillon finds an everlasting friend in Dega, as well as a renewed hope of escaping from Devil’s Island. The road to freedom however is a long and arduous one, and each time he seems close, Papillon’s glimmer of a chance is promptly snatched away. Yet his very fighting spirit, combined with the great humanity and love for his fellow man that remains in his heart, negates the judge’s cruel sentence. Papillon’s life is not wasted, not as long as he continues to hold it dear.
Papillon, which means butterfly in French, is a perfect sobriquet for the character of Henri “Papillon” Charrière. Like the vibrant blue butterflies which the prisoners are forced to catch, Papillon is not destined to be caged. However, one must not forget that butterflies are predominantly solitary insects, and Papillon too ultimately goes it alone. The conclusion of the film is therefore both beautiful and poignant. Dega must bid farewell to his dear friend, but as he watched Papillon drift away on the sea, as if being carried on the wings on the blue butterfly, it is indeeed a scene of hope and happiness.