REWIND — #240: Papillon (1972), again

For this brief series of blogs, I’ll be re-watching some films I’ve dismissed as unworthy of a top 250 film list, just in case my first take was flawed, hypercritical, or distracted. I’m no expert, but sometimes certain movies that people like actually suck.  Here’s to second chances.

If it’s important to you, you can read my original post about this movie here.

When and how did I watch this?

February 11th, 2017, on Amazon Instant Video.

Had I seen this film already?

Yes, September 2nd, 2015, on Amazon Instant Video.

What did I know about the movie before watching it?

My previous take: “I stopped watching short of 45 minutes into the film.  What a waste.  I knew nothing about the shallow characters from the start besides their “deal”, and it appeared the director was more interested in making the scene as gross and desperate as possible rather than trying to tell a story. I felt my intelligence was insulted from the start, and the film intended to sell me this false reality with zero substance when I already told it I’m spending my money elsewhere.”

I do remember the film being a gross-out fest to start. After watching The Graduate and The Great Escape, I got a better idea of what the lead actors were capable of, though McQueen proves to be typecast into pretty face in tough guy roles.

What do I know about it now?

The quip, “That is the sound of ultimate suffering,” from The Princess Bride came out of my mouth about an hour and a half into the film, around the time Papillon is facing his first solitary term.  Inigo Montoya’s heart made that sound when his father died, and the man in black was making it when he heard it as well. It’s funny when he says it, especially if we know what Westley is going through, and we’re aware of the absurdity of “the machine”. Unfortunately, Papillon’s (McQueen) cries fall on deaf ears; the resident guards are indifferent to death, suffering, and any level of discomfort, and the incarceration and labor is beyond inhumane. In contrast to Westley’s suffering, this set of circumstances is far graver.  People die of disease, exhaustion, and suicide all around Papillon and Degas (Hoffman), but they manage to defy death numerous times, plotting escapes and watching their fellow prisoners take the fall. I’m reminded of Cool Hand Luke and The Great Escape, whereas similarly gritty-witty characters manage daring escapes from horrible imprisonment, only to be caught and face terrible consequences when they return. Papillon should have died numerous times. The lasting image of him at the conclusion is grotesque: his hair is albino-grey, teeth falling out, famished, and almost insane. Yet he manages one last escape attempt from a remote island, and succeeds/survives, despite jumping from a 20-story cliff in order to do so. As I read from Roger Ebert’s albeit unpopular review, we’re glad he escapes because the movie is finally over. What I garnered from the second viewing, however, is the theme of regret — we see numerous prisoners and “workers” who lament over their past decisions, many of them either buckling to help Papillon out, or succumbing to their pain and ending their lives. This was the real story, though a nonetheless depressing one, yet they resorted to making the film about what the human body can endure.  In turn, we’re forced to endure it as well.

What are some themes in the film?

Regret, friendship, perseverance, death, betrayal, money

Did this affect me personally?

There’s a scene when Papillon is dreaming during his first solitary term that haunts me. In fact, both of the big dream sequences were more powerful than the live action.  I was also more so drawn into the friendship between Papillon and Degas this time.

Why is this ranked #240?

I’m still not 100% certain.  It appears to be another star-power film, but rather violent and featuring striking images of the landscape. It’s gross and “funny” at times.

Did my wife watch/like it?

She watched nearly the whole thing.  Same opinion.

Would I watch it again?

I didn’t want to finish it the first time.  I endured, and I never want to see it again.

Would I recommend it to a friend?


Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

I still don’t see its merit.  After the first viewing, I thought it was hilarious that the film was included on the list.  Now it seems sad. The film has since slid off of the IMDb Top 250, which is refreshing, but it still bears a high star rating. It has too little substance to be considered great by any standards, in my opinion.

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