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Warner Home Video presents
Papillon (1973)

Henri "Papillon" Charriere: The mainland's only 24 miles. You just drift with the current. Only two days.
Louis Dega: You're certain?
Papillon: Yeah.
Dega: It seems so... so desperate.
Papillon: Yeah.
Dega: You think it will work?
Papillon: Does it matter?

- Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: June 02, 2005

Stars: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman
Other Stars: Victor Jory, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Deman, Woodrow Parfrey, Bill Mumy, George Coulouris, Ratna Assan, William Smithers, Val Avery, Gregory Sierra, Victor Tayback, Mills Watson, Ron Soble, Barbara Morison, Don Hanmer, Richard Angarola
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: PG for (strong violence, language, nudity, mature themes)
Run Time: 02h:30m:36s
Release Date: May 31, 2005
UPC: 012569700987
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AB-C+ B-

DVD Review

Heat. Despair. Malaria. Excitement. Freedom. All these words combine to create Papillon, the film based on the memoir of Henri "Papillon" Charriere, which is at its core an intense drama about the human spirit. However, it is so much more than that and is a stunning movie from director Franklin J. Schaffner, screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., and star Steve McQueen.

Henri "Papillon" Charriere (McQueen) is sentenced to life for killing a pimp, a crime of which he claims to be innocent. Accompanied by hundreds of other convicts, Papillon is sent to Devil's Island where escape is impossible. But this man, whose nickname means "butterfly," cannot be chained and plots meticulously, even desperately, his exit. Working with the wealthy counterfeiter, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), and a variety of other convicts, multiple attempts are staged with varying results each time: crooked sea merchants turn Papillon and his crew in for a reward, the threat of violent lepers plagues another attempt, manhunters scrawl through the jungle, and so on.

Much of the story is told without dialogue, perhaps at the insistence of McQueen who always is at his best when conveying emotion and thoughts through facial expressions rather than speaking. At 150 minutes in length, the film flies by as if it runs only two hours. Much of its success can be attributed to director Schaffner and his impeccable crew, many of whom are carryovers from Patton, that blend the excitement of the chase scenes with dream sequences and a riveting portrayal of solitary confinement. The musical score by Jerry Goldsmith and lush cinematography create an intoxicating environment and add a level of tension to the film that would be lacking otherwise. It is tempting to think of Papillon as an adventure or prison film, but it is truly a character study. None of the excitement would matter if not for how immediate the plight of Papillon appears to be. As he wastes away in solitude, with his rationings cut in half while cloaked in perpetual darkness, I felt the threat of his death in my own spine.

The brutal nature of the prison is captured by the supporting cast, especially the men who play the guards and wardens. Their cold, emotionless performances embody a dire institution and clearly map out for the audience just how difficult it will be for Papillon to escape. At first the lack of French actors is distracting, but the American cast ultimately triumphs. Dustin Hoffman's Dega is believable as a rich man who got caught in a scam and is now out of his element, trying to survive by bribing others with his accumulated wealth—smuggled into the prison via his own stomach. However, this is McQueen's show and he delivers with one of his best performances, if not the best of his career. Gone is the "King of Cool," replaced by a strong man who cannot be held down. Along with Bonnie and Clyde, Papillon is one of the best examples of the cinematic anti-hero of the late '60s and early '70s. Watch McQueen's performance as Papillon ages during the course of the film as the stages are captured in his bodily posture. It's a fine piece of subtle acting.

NOTE: Although rated PG, the violence shown here is quite graphic and would easily earn a PG-13 rating today. Additionally, references to male rape are made during the movie. While Papillon clearly is more violent and adult than today's PG movies, it also is much softer than an R-rated one.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is the same as the prior DVD release, so it is not up to the usual standard that one would expect from Warner on the basis of their work over the past three years. It's still a good transfer overall, but print defects and mosquito noise are constantly popping up. Additionally, the scene where Dega talks about Papillon saving his life has an irritating blue streak that keeps appearing during it. Other than that, the contrast is good and fleshtones are accurate.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is front heavy, but the rear channels kick into action enough to make it an engrossing mix. The score sounds fantastic, being separated effectively across the front soundstage and coming through nicely in the surround speakers. Some of the dialogue during the solitary confinement scenes is difficult to make out, but I suspect that this is intentional due to how clear sound effects can be heard during those same scenes. I didn't notice any directionality, so it's not a very dynamic mix.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:26m:01s

Extras Review: The supplemental material here is identical with the previous release, since the disc is the same and only features a new packaging. A list of the principal cast and crew is included, as well as a biography and filmography of director Franklin J. Schaffner. The real feature worth looking at is The Magnificent Rebel (12m:22s). Accompanying the movie's 1973 release, this featurette contains footage of the real Henry Charriere touring the remains of the prison on Devil's Island. There's also a good amount of material covering the actual shoot. The theatrical trailer is also included in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. It's not a great collection of extras, but they're worth a look.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Papillon gets an excellent re-release in the new Steve McQueen Collection from Warner Home Video. It's just the same DVD as before, but now in keepcase packaging. For those who don't own the prior release, make sure to pick this up.


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