A parade is walking down this French street, but it is no cause for celebration for these men are being sent to the penal colonies of the Caribbean for long sentences - many will never return. Among the marchers are Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) who smiles to his wife as he leaves, hoping to see her again soon, having been caught for his extensive counterfeiting, but also present is the man known as Papillon - Butterfly - thanks to the tattoo on his chest. His real name is Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen) and he has been sent down for murdering a pimp, a crime he vociferously denies though that has not helped his case any. These two men will soon be thrown together by fate, for Papillon is not a soul to be trapped by his fellow men... he must escape.
There comes a time in every macho movie star's life, or so it seems, where he has to accept he simply has to appear in a prison film, and Papillon was Steve McQueen's entry in the genre. It is commonly regarded as his last great performance, mainly among those who give The Towering Inferno short shrift, but also because he took a deliberate break from acting from the mid-seventies to the very late seventies, typical of his willful approach to life where he resented being told what to do: what he wanted to do was An Enemy of the People, which he managed to complete to almost no fanfare whatsoever as hardly anybody was interested. By the time he was back starring in more conventional parts, it was too late to reclaim his crown as one of the Kings of Hollywood, because he was dying.
So was his performance as Charriere really that good, or was he getting the sentimental vote from those who appreciated his endeavours to render the real life figure as convincing as possible, which basically meant a gruelling physical regime to replicate the endurance Charriere had gone through? First things first, the actual events were much in dispute, with French prison records apparently having no listing for him ever being in their penal colony, of which Devil's Island was part, and if he had been there it appeared he had greatly embellished his experiences with stories of what happened to his fellow inmates. He died a few months before the film was released, so never got to see the final lionisation of his possibly fictional derring-do, though some would have it Charriere wrote Papillon as a novel and had been persuaded to put the "True Story" tag on it.
It really shouldn't matter so much for the movie as so many adaptations for the silver screen eschew the facts for something more cinematic and dramatic, but how accurate it was has been a bone of contention ever since. What was not in doubt was that as a motion picture Papillon had plenty to say about the human spirit, intended to inspire us with its tale of how one man was able to prevail against horrendous odds, yet as the reviews were wont to point out (in no way was this an instant classic) it was more about how much masochism McQueen could put himself through for the sake of his art. That peculiar misgiving about acting as a profession that many actors have, that it wasn't worth doing unless you were going to suffer to prove that this was no fancy-schmancy make believe prancing around, had driven a lot of them to drink, but more to really pushing themselves.
Not always for a good cause, either - Hoffman's famous "Try acting" exchange with Sir Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man echoes down the ages - but there was an undeniable interest in watching stars punish themselves all for the sake of acting glory, whether it arrived or not. Hoffman was almost as dedicated as McQueen in that respect, as we could not accept either of their performances unless they both looked absolutely terrible, with Papillon eating insects in solitary confinement and Dega always saddled with a pair of distortingly thick spectacles for example, though McQueen as ever was dead keen perform his own stunts, especially if they involved leaping into bodies of water, the liquid being a metaphor for hope and freedom and escape from confinement. By the last act, after they both have to all intents and purposes been broken by the system, the story has taken on a parable-like nature, telling us that for some life will always be a prison, while for others it's a never-ending challenge. Maybe it's the latter for everyone, really. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.