Few can argue that Papillon is not a classic. The combined talents of Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, and the entire cast, Director Franklin J. Schaffner and his crew, all made for an intense drama that is captivating. The history of the production is as rich as the picture, and we now take a look at a film that has retained its popularity for almost 40 years.
About Devil's Island
First opened in 1852 under Emperor Napoleon III's reign, Devil's Island penal colony has been one of the most infamous prisons in history. This prison was home to political prisoners and hardened criminals. Prisoners that attempted to escape faced piranha, Crocodile and snake infested rivers and very thick jungle surroundings. Those making the attempt were put in solitary confinement for periods of a year or more, irons and shackles as well as added years to their sentence. In 1895 the colony gained additional notoriety when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was sent to Devil's Island after being falsely accused of treason. He would finally be released in 1899 with his name cleared. This made the prison world-famous.
Part of the prison as it looks today
The warden had more "comfortable" quarters
Prisoners sent to Devil's Island were exposed to hell-hole conditions. Many were worked to death. Tropical storms, malaria and floods claimed some 10,000 prisoners. There was also a mental ward on the facility, which was said to be extremely cruel with its prisoner treatment.
Of 80,000 men that were sent to this prison, only 30,000 survived. The prison closed in 1946. The prison was used for several films, for instance "Phantom of the Opera" (1925) in which this prison is where the phantom escaped from. The 1955 film "We're No Angels" takes place on Devil's Island. More than 50,000 tourists visit the prison each year, and no doubt many mention "Papillon."
To escape meant facing piranha, crocodiles, sharks and drowning
What remains of an entrance to Devil's Island
Without bars as it appears today
Director Franklin J. Schaffner history and interviews
A common fear in the movie industry in the early 1970's was producing lavishly-budgeted films, which many
predicted as being automatic financial disasters. It is the same today, only on a much larger financial scale. It was a trepidation unfamiliar to the highly-
talented and successful director, Franklin J. Schaffner. His pictures had varied in budget from
$1.5 million for "The Best Man" to $12.5 million spent on Patton, a film which earned him an
Academy Award. And "Papillon" became his biggest at $13 million.
"I'm not conscious of an extra burden when doing an expensive picture like 'Papillon"
Schaffner said in an interview on the set. "The devotion, skill, responsibility and creativity are not affected by accountants. The toughest part of making a picture, I find, is to get started. There is always
something gnawing at the back of your mind saying, 'Maybe I can delay.' The difficulty is laying a
secure enough platform beneath you. The second toughest part of making a picture is finishing it—
the post production and editing. This is so for psychological rather than physiological reasons."
It is interesting that Schaffner's career as a major motion picture director is based on
experience gained from working with the relatively smaller medium of television; and his precise use of the camera and capacity for drawing out his actors stem, in great measure, from this
background in which he won four Emmys. In the late 1950's and early 60's, Schaffner joined CBS
Television where he covered public events, sports and political conventions. After working four
years on Studio One, Schaffner worked for two years on "Playhouse 90."
"What makes television such an influential medium is its sense of instant drama. A political
convention, an investigation, news as we see it every night —the whole character of the national
psychology has changed because of the news and live drama."
Schaffner also gained experience working on the stage, and directed the 1951 Broadway play "Advise
and Consent" (winner Variety Critics Poll for direction). This in turn led to his first of numerous
film contracts, "The Stripper."
But it was from the previous influence of television, with its quality of instant, live drama, that
laid the basis for an important theme in Schaffner's work with film—that is, dealing with
monumental figures during explosive points in history. It is a theme which by its very nature
necessitates the commitment of a large budgeted project.
"Patton," for example, dealt
with the life of a famous general whose fanatical motivations and abilities influenced the outcome
of World War II, and whose personal eccentricities became legendary. And in "Nicholas and
Alexandra," Schaffner sensitively probed the life and era of the last of the Russian Czars, a man
who, as Schaffner remarks, "loses his throne and gains his soul."
"Papillon" too contains the ingredients with which Schaffner liked to work. Based on the
autobiographical best-selling novel by Henri Charriere, the film recounts the many breathtaking
escapes by Charriere (known as Papillon because of a butterfly tattoo on his chest) from the French
penal colonies at Devil's Island and French Guiana. It is a quick-moving picture with realistic
action and violence, but also an intimate, poetic glimpse into the nature of its characters.
Schaffner was jubilant about the cast, headed by Steve McQueen in the title role and Dustin Hoffman
as a fellow convict, Dega. "McQueen was an obvious choice for the part of Papillon, a complicated
individual with an almost supernatural sense of power and leadership. Steve succeeded in combining
'Papi's' qualities of fitful revenge, obsessive daring and passion for freedom. It's perhaps the
best and most chal-
lenging role of Steve's career."
Director Franklin J. Schaffner on the set
Schaffner was equally elated with Hoffman's portrayal of Dega. "Dega is a total paradox," the
director explains. "He is both an urbane French skeptic and a convicted counterfeiter who robbed
the French people of millions. Dustin completely immersed himself in the soul of this character
during the entire shooting period. In the end, the hard work paid off — Hoffman evolves as the
quixotic personality that is truly Louis Dega."
The most fascinating aspect of the picture for Schaffner is the relationship drawn between the two
main characters. "Papillon and Dega compose an unhappy marriage. Within each of the two men is the
alter ego of the other. Hoffman is the intellect who must cope with the reality of his own animal
instincts in the daily struggle for survival. And McQueen is the paragon of reckless masculinity,
with an inner sensitivity struggling for release. The theme of the movie itself, in other words, is
illustrated by these two men. Theirs is an exploration of the struggle between destructive
inhumanity and compassion, between imprisonment and freedom — not only within the confines of a
Devil's Island, but also within the confines of man's very nature."
Schaffner did not direct many films, but the ones he did direct are well-known boxoffice successes, including "The War Lord" "Planet-of-the-Apes"and "PattonHe also directed "The Boys from Brazil", "Islands in the Stream" and "Yes Giorgio." He was also active in television, directing many "DuPont Show of the Week" programs, six episodes of "The Defenders" and nineteen episodes of "Playhouse 90."
Famed French Author wrote the original Story
Bitter irony marked the death of Henri Charriere, famed French criminal and author nick-
named "Papillon" because of the butterfly—symbolic of freedom—tattooed on his chest. For a rebel
who survived 13 harrowing years in the notoriously cruel penal colonies in French Guiana and then
escaped to write his experiences into what emerged as the international best-seller "Papillon,"
death from illness at age 66 seemed anti-climactic.
Charriere's autobiography, one of the greatest contemporary adventures, is so compelling that it
inspired the movie, "Papillon," True to the book, the film is a harrowing account of the brutal conditions endured by convicts
serving time in the since-abandoned French penal colonies and of the superhuman efforts of
Charriere to escape the hellish surroundings. What emerges from both the book and movie is really
more than a story of action and suspense-it is a portrayal of the ultimate triumph of the human
spirit over all odds.
Unfortunately, Charriere, who died in August of the production year, did not live to see his story re-enacted
on the screen; but after visiting during the shooting of the film in Jamaica, he left assured of
its authenticity. Visibly affected by the prison set, an exact replica of the original compound
still standing on Devil's Island, he remarked to Academy Award-winning director, Franklin J.
Schaffner, "Even after 35 years of freedom, I'm still looking over my shoulders to see if the guards are following me."
The real Henri Charriere at Devil's Island
Charriere claimed to have been born a rebel on November 16,1906, in the South of France, where both
his father and mother were teachers in a primary school. At the age of 11, his mother died and because of an incident in school in which he
stabbed another student with a compass, he was expelled and enlisted as a sailor in the fleet.
Unable to accept the life of automatic discipline, Charriere spent half of his enlistment in the
brig. Inciting the hostility of his commanding officers, he was finally sent to Corsica in a
disciplinary unit. At age 18, he managed to crush his thumb between two rocks, was discharged from
the military service, and sent back home. Since he could not present any certificate of good
conduct in the French Army, he failed to find a job and, feeling rejected, decided to go to Paris.
"In Paris," Charriere claimed, "it did not take long before I became a bad guy and got acquainted with
a gang specializing in burglary and the breaking of safes—but only the breaking of safes belonging
to State agencies, not to private enterprises or people." In 1931, Charriere was convicted of
murdering a Montmarte pimp, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He said he was innocent, the victim
of dishonest informers and a miscarriage of justice.
Jfharriere was sent to Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. Three years later he escaped from the
penitentiary, landed in a colony of lepers, then sailed away on a frail boat to the Gulf of
Maracaibo. He lived among jungle Indians, moved on, was caught, shipped to Devil's Island and kept
there for two years in solitary confinement.
Henri Charriere months before his death
He tried several more escapes and finally succeeded on his last —a paddle over a shark-filled sea
on a raft of dried coconuts. He found refuge in Venezuela, worked as a gold digger, oil prospector
and pearl merchant and did other odd jobs before settling down in Caracas, marrying, opening a
restaurant and becoming a prosperous Venezuelan citizen.
At the age of 62, he stumbled on the novels of Albertine Sarrazin, a former prostitute and
jailbird, and, spurred by her literary good fortune, decided to describe his own experiences. In a
few months, he filled 13 copybooks with his autobiography and sent it to a Parisian publisher, who
became enthusiastic about the manuscript. The book has since sold over 17 million copies world-wide
and 5 million copies in the United States alone.
Charriere wrote a motion picture, "Popsy Pop," and starred in it himself with Claudia Cardinale. He
also wrote a sequel to "Papillon" which did not approach its success. Another book,
"Banco," was published by William Morrow and Co. in December, 1973.
In 1970, the French Minister of Justice signed a decree of grace formally removing the legal
restrictions which prevented Charriere from returning to Paris.
On a visit to New York in 1970, a time of prison rioting throughout this country, Char-
riere proved himself a leader of social justice, declaring that society was "guilty of collective
sadism" in the way it treated criminals and suspects; and that the treatment does not diminish but
increases the sum of crime. "The best school of crime is jail," Charriere remarked. "The biggest
defect of American justice is bail. The ones who have money can pay the bail. The man with no money
must stay in jail."
Charriere, the humanitarian convict, has left behind in both book and movie form his epic of a
miraculous battle against the injustices of a dehumanized establishment. The cry "Vive Papillon!"
has become a reality.
Japanese poster for Papillon
Steve McQueen talked about Papillon
"My name could as easily have been Papillon, too," stated Steve McQueen in a moment of self-
revelation while discussing his movie in an after-release interview.
McQueen points out that while the late Charriere's nickname, Papillon, came from the tattoo of a
butterfly on his chest, "it was also a symbolic reference to this man's character, to his need,
like that of a butterfly, to live free or not at all."
It was this same strain in McQueen's personality, career, and life experiences which made him not
only the first, but the only, choice of director Franklin J. Schaffner for the title role.
"Success as an actor, and the wealth that has come with it," Schaffner explained, "has never changed
the underlying nature of Steve. He's still basically the same youngster whose resistance to any
restraints ultimately led him to minor encounters with the law and then a period in the Boys
Republic of Chino, a local California institution for teen-agers." The young McQueen followed this
period by signing on a Greek oil tanker, jumping ship in the Dominican Republic and returning to
the United States where he became a roustabout in Texas oil fields. Among other jobs tried by the
peripatetic McQueen. none held down for any protracted period , were a tree topper in Canadian
lumber camps and a barker with a carnival.
Steve McQueen taking a break
Publicity shot of Steve McQueen
"I kept being driven by this restless feeling. I seemed always to be looking for something—never
knowing what it was—but always there was the sense that I couldn't be confined and shouldn't be
confined. And that's exactly what I felt in common when I read 'Papillon'," McQueen
recalled. "This man who had been restless and moving, suddenly found himself imprisoned, and his
natural and involuntary reaction was, 'I must get out of this damned place.' Of course, the kind of
inhuman, brutalizing treatment that was then practiced in the French penal colonies in those days
added to his desire to be free."
Rare on-set photo
Steve McQueen takes a break on the set
After serving as a tank driver and mechanic in the Marine Corps, the real-life McQueen began to feel a sense of belonging by hanging around stock-car racing
tracks and motorcycle garages. Charriere, on the other hand, after a number of aborted escapes and
long stretches in solitary confinement, which only reinforced his determination to achieve freedom,
finally reached Venezuela, where the government gave him sanctuary and he built a new life as a
restaurateur. It was many years later, at the age of 62, that he spent two months filling 13
notebooks with his remembrances of adventures and escapes. From these notes came "Papillon," which
sold more than 5 million copies in the United States and 17 million around the world.
Rare poster from Yugoslavia
The changing point in McQueen's life occurred when an actress friend introduced him to Sanford
Meisner, the famed drama teacher, who offered the surprised young man a role in a Yiddish play on
Second Avenue. For the first time, McQueen enjoyed the feeling of having found his place. Summer stock, Broadway and television came in that order before he made his film debut in Allied
Artists' "Never Love a Stranger." Throughout his acting career, he has played roles which required
controlled action and an intimation of dynamic restlessness below the surface of the character.
If it wasn't for his impressively successful acting career, McQueen might have become a top driver
on the international racing tour. He has been competing in motorcycle and auto races since 1953.
Before retiring from active competition, McQueen was sponsored by the British Motor Corp. in races
in this country and abroad.
Steve McQueen in rare humorous publicity shot
As with all complex individuals, there is another, incongruous side to the actor which he exposes
only to those close to him. One of his major interests is helping deprived children. This includes
supporting and publicizing the Boys Republic of Chino. While making "The Sand Pebbles" in Taiwan,
he and director Robert Wise became involved in the work of Father Edward Wojniak to found Taiwan
Hostels, a shelter for poor country girls who are homeless in Taipei. McQueen and Wise provided
finances for Father Wojniak to enlarge his program of operations.
Although his scene has changed, and with it some of his emotions, McQueen still remembers his
earlier, turbulent life. "Thinking back, I feel that I must have spent almost a third of my life
being angry and never knowing why. Maybe it was because I came from the streets, and feeling
second-class caused a resentment which brought out rebellion and hostility." Now that is gone, but
the actor was able "to comprehend the same inner feelings of Charriere and to use them to my
advantage as an actor while portraying him in "Papillon."
Original Lobby Card set
Ratna Assan, at 18, made her film debut
Ratna Assan makes her film debut in Allied Artists' "Papillon," portraying a young Colombian Indian
girl who falls in love with Steve McQueen, in the title role. The 18-year-old beauty, holder of a
Brown Belt in karate, was born in Torrance, Calif., from parents of Indonesian stock. Her mother
and father were both professional dancers, and at one time her mother was known as "Pavlova of the
Raised in Los Angeles, she was a cheerleader in junior high and high school. She
members, "was that I felt involved and at the same time I felt free. That had never happened
before... at least to me." She studied dancing with several teachers including Bert Privell, Rosalind Fray and Carmelita Maracci.
While attending high school, she danced professionally, and was a member of a singing group called
Spice Garden, which recorded several sides with Ray Charles. Following in the footsteps of her
parents, Ratna is proficient in various types of dance including Oriental, Belly, Hawaiian, Ballet
In her brief professional career she appeared in several episodes of the television series, "Mr.
Roberts"; she was a regular on the video series, "Destry"; and she played Yul Brynner's youngest
wife in the TV series, "Anna and The King."
An animal lover, she lives in California with her parents and her three hens, four roosters, seven
cats and two dogs.
Ratna Assan and Steve McQueen
Dustin Hoffman Absorbed the role of Louis Dega
In one sense, "Papillon" was an "ideal" picture for Dustin Hoffman during shooting "because, unlike
most films, it was shot in continuity"—in the same order that it unfolds on the screen. But the
actor's involvement in understanding and creating his starring role of Dega required considerable
time, discussion and concentration.
Hoffman explains that "for any actor, but especially for one from the stage, shooting in
consecutive order is a great help in developing a character. The usual way, for economy, is to
shoot all scenes in the same locale or on the same set regardless of their order in the movie.
Frequently what happens is that one day during the second month of filming you suddenly understand
further aspects of the character you are playing but it is, of course, too late to re-shoot the
earlier scenes you did before you arrived at a closer understanding of the person you are playing."
Hoffman's initial starring film, "The Graduate," was shot "about 80 percent in continuity, which is
pretty good compared to most pictures, and it was helpful to me at the time . . . especially since
it was my first major role before a camera." Hoffman's next picture, "Midnight Cowboy," also had
some sequences which were done consecutively, but Director Franklin J. Schaffner's concept to shoot
the whole of "Papillon" sequentially "made it an ideal picture" for the actor.
Dustin Hoffman studio publicity shot
B&W publicity still, Dustin Hoffman
Hoffman's preparation before filming, however, was not so simple. In addition to his usual
meticulous and in-depth research for a role, he became involved with Dalton Trumbo, co-author of
the script, in creating the character he portrays.
"Actually, the character I play in the film is composed of a couple of characters in the book—the
Dega of Charriere's 'Papillon' was a minor one—and the result of many long discussions with
Trumbo," according to Hoffman. A unique consequence of these talks between actor and author was
that Hoffman suggested that Trumbo "write the character off himself." Hoffman remembers how
impressed he was when he first met Trumbo and in their subsequent meetings he discovered aspects of
the writer's person-ity which he felt "were appropriate for the man I saw Dega to be." As Trumbo
described the fictional individual, Hoffman began to see the two merging: "Trumbo's sophistication
overlays a dynamic strength and integrity which I felt was applicable to Dega."
Belgian style poster and one of the most valuable
Before reading the script, Hoffman recalls, "I knew that I wouldn't be interested in doing the film
if it was going to be one of those buddy prison pictures where Steve McQueen and I would be
required to play charismatic head to head."
Behind Hoffman's ideas concerning his role in "Papillon" was a period of research and study. He
spent weeks in the New York Public Library reading everything on the shelves concerning French
penal colonies. "I studied about ten or twelve books on prison life there. One of the books was by
a former inmate, an art forger whose life had great similarities with what I thought about Dega,
who was a counterfeiter. I drew from this man's real life experiences as a frame of reference for
filling out my concept of Dega." The actor also studied photographs and paintings of the French
penal colony of that period.
Two actors in the film had less difficulty creating and preparing for their roles, Hoffman points
out with a smile. "They more or less did it on the spur of the moment—my wife, Anne, who plays my
wife in the film, and Trumbo, who plays a prison Commandant." Both got their parts in the same way,
according to the actor. "Trumbo, Schaffner, my wife and I were sitting in the hotel lobby in Spain,
where some of the location shooting took place, discussing the difficulty in finding a local woman
for the part of my wife. As a joke, I suggested Anne. She laughed but Schaffner and Trumbo thought
it was a good idea." When Mrs. Hoffman said she wouldn't know what to do, her husband said, "Wave
goodbye and act like you'll never see me again." She replied: "Do I have to feel sad?" She got the
part. In the same way, when no local man could be found to play the Commandant, Schaffner turned to
Trumbo. But the writer had to be talked into it, Hoffman recalls, "because he didn't want to have
his hair cut."
A friendly on-set moment captured on film
Production Designer Anthony Masters and Art Director Jack Maxsted spent more than a year researching and supervising the building of the huge prison set, which was over 800 feet long, making it the largest set constructed for a motion picture at the time. A crew of British construction experts worked side by side with Jamaican carpenters, painters and plasterers in the preparation of the prison set and various other sets used in the film. In addition, almost all of the extras used in the movie were from Jamaica. The 600 French prisoners were recruited from a colony of Germans who emigrated to Jamaica as farmers years ago and who still reside in their own community on the island.
The prison ship in the film is actually a cargo vessel which sails the Caribbean and which bears a striking resemblance to the original ship La Martiniere, which is in a French museum. Over 1,000 extras were used in the scenes lensed in Fuenterrabia, Spain, in which the convicts board the prison ship to be transported to the French penal colony off the Coast of South America. Making her screen debut as Dustin Hoffman's wife, who bids him farewell as he boards the ship, is Hoffman's real life wife, Anne Byrne, a ballet dancer.
Rare artwork from Italy
One of the most interested visitors to the set during the production was the late Henri Charriere. Charriere found the prison set to be identical with the real prison where he had been incarcerated 35 years ago. He also saw the Devil's Island location which he thought absolutely perfect in its reality, and watched the filming at the Colombian village location, an exact replica of the tiny village where he was sheltered and found romance during one of his escapes.
The cast contains some of the most respected character actors appearing in motion pictures and one newcomer. Victor Jory portrays the Indian Chief; George Coulouris plays the prison doctor; Don Gordon, Robert Deman and William Mumy portray prisoners; and Anthony Zerbe plays the head of a leper colony. The newcomer is 18-year-old California-born Ratna Assan, who makes her film debut in "Papillon" playing a native girl who falls in love with McQueen.
The music for the movie was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, whose previous film scores have earned him five Academy Award nominations. This was, according to Goldsmith, one of his favorite movies to score. In the music studio, he said, "This is the kind of work I really enjoy. To be able to vision such intense drama and create a score for this film was a very enjoyable experience for me. It was not without its problems, due to the contrast in characters, but in the end I think it worked fairly well."
Most common poster is the USA re-release poster style A
Allied Artists released Papillon on December 16, 1973, an interesting Christmas release. It was released in 35mm Panavision 2:35:1 with 4 track magnetic stereo. It opened in most other countries in 1974. Costing $12 million (part of which was the location shooting in Jamaica, France, Spain and Hawaii), it earned $22 million in theatrical grosses in the United States, so counting foreign boxoffice, the film made quite a sum of money at $53 million to date. Jerry Goldsmith would be the only one nominated for an Oscar for his musical score, while Steve McQueen was nominated for a Golden Globe. Both lost. But the film remains a fan favorite and stands today as a top rated drama.
For discussion on this and other Silver Screen columns, see The Silver Screen forum thread Here
This is one of Steve McQween's finest films. His performance is outstanding, only surpassed maybe by his role in "The Sand Pebbles". May I add that composer Jerry Goldsmith wrote the music for both films and his work on both movies are superlative.
This was a terrific read that definitely enhanced my appreciation for the film quite a bit. Cheers for that. I'm looking forward to the Kiss Me Deadly piece that is listed in the "Coming Soon" section.
VERY entertaining read. These columns are awesome, love all the photos/posters! One complaint though: Why are they removed after a while? I didn’t have time to finish reading the first ones and now they are gone...
Thanks, Robert, for another fascinating article about a film I very much enjoy. (I just received the blu-ray disc on Tuesday from my preorder.) I love how your articles give such detailed accounts of the histories behind the films and those who participated in their creation. I'll continue to look forward to your terrific contributions.
Fantastic research and images. The only thing needed for this column to be of highest quality is for the author Mr. Siegel to find an editor to review the piece before it is posted since it is often lacking in writing quality (numerous repetitions of information regarding Charriere and others, neglecting to mention the location of Devil's Island until well into the column, etc.). Perhaps Kenneth Brown or another reviewer would agree to this? Heck, I'll do it for free if Mr. Siegel is interested.
Wonderful article, but to me that in that shot you mentioned as a rare humorous publicity shot, was just a still photo at a different angle of the scene in the film where guards are forcing Papillon to push his throat pipe out and stiffen it to prevent him from choking to death from the metal bar they are pushing upwards under his neck, which just so happens to make him appear to grimace or smile. See what you think when you watch the film again. I am so grateful for your wealth of information, stills, and stories, on the movies I grew up loving. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. I just wish the studios would make it worth your while to supplement their blu-ray releases. Martin Scorsese please contact Robert and those studios and talk them into it, won't you?