Papillon – a tale of two movies.

There is something about feature films that focus on prison and imprisonment.

The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption,Midnight Express,Dead Man Walking and even the Bird Man of Alcatraz are all films I can recall vividly and made an impact on me.

Papillon, however made perhaps the biggest impact for its gritty realism and visceral treatment of the incarceration of an innocent man by the French authorities in colonial French Guyana in the 1930’s.


You know the story, a man befriends a fellow criminal as the two of them begin serving their sentence on a dreadful prison island, which inspires the man to plot his escape. That and a speech at the start by the prison warden  standing beside a huge guillotine set on a bloodstained flagstone telling the new arrivals the consequences of violence was solitary confinement and the consequences of murder was decapitation. And, of course forget about escape as the jungle and shark infested waters were worse than the prison itself!

My first experience of this film was in 1974. Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen made it unforgettable. Then recently I discovered that a remake had been made and was available online as well on general release.

I planned to watch it with some trepidation as the first version was such an iconic movie to me. Directed by Michael Noer it has been doing the rounds of the international film festivals since 2017 when it was released and was at the Edinburgh Festival in June 2018. Not a huge blockbuster budget then, and that impressed me as it seemed to be  giving the  autobiography written by Henri Charrière  the ‘Papillon’ of the title a fresh start for a new generation of film goers.


My verdict was that it ticked a number of boxes. The characters were engaging.Charlie Hunnam playing the lead role actually got first proper acting role in Byker Grove on TV.


Rami Malek plays Louis Dega the convicted fraudster who does a deal with Charrière for protection in the hostile prison environment. People will know Malek from his acclaimed performance of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.


The characters did work for me as did the scenery. I was convinced it was French Guyana but was surprised to discover it was largely filmed in and around Montenegro and Malta. But no more ‘spoilers’ from me I will leave you watch it yourselves and make up your own minds. The film is classified 15 , as you might expect there are scenes of nudity and violence.

The critics will say it does not have the same gravitas as the original 1974 movie. I tend to agree with that in part but I take the view that anything that brings the original book back out in the open is a very good thing. It remains a fantastic story about the resilience of the human spirit and the more people who come in contact with it the better.

Let people see for themselves and decide, maybe the earlier movie will make a comeback too. Here is the full movie trailer.


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