Cinema: Escape Vehicle

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It is nice to see French Guiana again. The French may have shut down the infamous penal system they used to maintain there, but it still flourishes as a country of the mind, a Disneyland for masochists, in the imagination of moviemakers. For them the guards will always and universally be sadistic brutes, the prisoners either nice guys or people doing time for bad raps.

Some—like Henry Charriere (Steve McQueen), whose nickname, Papillon (Butterfly), is symbolized in a tattoo on his chest—are endlessly obsessed with plans for escape. Others, like Louis Degas (Dustin Hoffman), try to get along by going along. Still others are on hand to demonstrate by their dramatically timely deaths just how difficult both courses are. Much suspenseful, if highly stylized, drama results from the interaction of these characters with one another and with hell on earth. Devotees of the prison-and-escape genre will enjoy anew such tradition-blessed ploys as the smug-gled-weapon bit, sundry chases through jungle and swamp, the operation-with-out-anaesthesia scene, and of course the solitary-confinement sequence.

Unfortunately, Director Schaffner's natural taste is for the big, expensive canvas. The slickness of his work vitiates any attempt to take Papillon with entire seriousness. Prison life is more picturesque than genuinely horrifying, and the escapes into the world outside are seen through a National Geographic lens brightly. Everywhere squalor seems to have been painted on carefully but obviously, like McQueen's old man's makeup at the end of the picture.

Still, McQueen works hard and al most manages to triumph over his star presence, while Hoffman submerges himself eccentrically and amusingly in his coward's role. Papillon inevitably refers us to old movies rather than to reality. Audiences whose expectations do not exceed their grasp will find it a much more comfortable vehicle for escape than any that McQueen & Co. discover on location.