Discipline & Punish: Papillon (1973)

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Breaking Out and Breaking In: A Distributed Film Fest of Prison Breaks and Bank Heists—co-sponsored by BLDGBLOG, Filmmaker Magazine, and Studio-X NYC—continued recently with Papillon (1973), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Papillon remains one of my favorite films, since first seeing it as a teenager (though I will come back to that at the end); however, as usual for this series, I will try to limit myself to the spatial and/or architectural themes of at play in the movie.

In a nutshell, Papillon tells the story of Papillon (played by Steve McQueen), imprisoned in the overseas penal colony of Caribbean French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America. Papillon alleges that he is and always has been innocent of his charge (killing a pimp in France); nonetheless, France “has disposed of you,” we hear in booming tones from a man with a walrus mustache in the film’s opening scene. “The nation has disposed of you altogether.”

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Papillon and his fellow prisoners are thus relegated to lives of hard labor, to brutal regimes of solitary confinement, and, in the end, either to forced colonization of French Guiana or to a final stretch of unsupervised years of imprisonment on a craggy island surrounded by sheer cliff walls, the prisoners sent there deemed too broken in body, spirit, and will to pose a risk of escape or violence.

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Along the way, the carceral gymnastics of the early modern state command the mens’ activities. They arrive at the island on a trans-Atlantic steamer ship, kitted out inside with barred cells and prisoners’ hammocks, its dormitory lined with steam pipes that can be turned on at will to punish the men inside. They are introduced to the guillotine, that disciplinary apparatus of last order of the French state. “Make the best of what we offer you,” an anonymous supervisor says, after the guillotine’s blade has crashed down through a thick stalk of vegetation, demonstrating its raw power, “and you will suffer less than you deserve.”

While on the transport ship, Papillon meets Louis Dega, who has been sent to Guiana for selling counterfeit national defense bonds. “I have no intention of even attempting to escape,” Dega says. “Ever.” He is slightly smiling when he says this, bemusing Papillon, who soon becomes Dega’s paid protection (and long-term friend) in the camps.

However, learning of that friendship, a prison warden whose family lost their fortune in counterfeit defense bounds, sends Papillon and Dega off together to clear swamps with nothing but ropes and their bare hands.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Their various chores soon include the extraordinary scene of prisoners sent out into the jungle to capture exotic butterflies—an activity that is at least doubly ironic. Not only are captives being asked, in turn, to capture rare species (including one prisoner, Papillon, whose very name comes from the butterfly tattooed on his chest), but, in an awesome detail, we learn that these particular butterflies are valuable precisely because the pigment in their wings is used for inking U.S. currency.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

That it is Dega who tells us this—the counterfeiter supreme—lends the whole sequence an incredible, if macabre, poetry. But there is also something striking in this revelation of the commodity chain, suggesting that U.S. currency contains the remains of exotic butterflies hunted in the jungle by French prisoners. All objects—even objects that stand for other objects—come from somewhere, including state currency literally printed with the bodies of captives, both human and animal.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

But, after this point, the real imprisonments—and, of course, the escapes—begin.

Papillon attacks a guard to protect Dega from a routine beating, only to be forced to flee into the jungle—diving into the swamp and swimming off into the roots of mangroves—when he realizes that he’ll be shot on sight for his violation (in fact, he dodges bullets as he leaps into the murky waters).

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Except, of course, he doesn’t make it; he is turned in by local manhunters (former prisoners turned professional trackers of escapees); and he is introduced to the cell in which a great deal of the film then takes place.

A brief note on the architecture of incarceration in Papillon. The cells have bars instead of roofs, allowing them to be watched from above by roving guards. However, this also means that the cell can be “screened”—that is, its only source of light can be blocked for six months at a time, something that soon happens to Papillon (who is reduced to eating roaches and centipedes in the darkness). The prisoners receive their rations through a small hole near the floor, which pops open everyday at the sound of a whistle (there is no speaking allowed in the facility, helpfully painted with the word SILENCE in black letters on the outside walls). And the prisoners must lean forward and stick their heads through holes in the cell door for things like hair cuts and lice treatments—but also for occasional interrogations by the warden and his guards.

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

While locked up in darkness, Papillon has a dream in which he confronts a makeshift judge and jury on the beach somewhere back in France. For whatever reason, I have always loved this scene. “You know the charge,” a faceless judge shouts at Papillon. “Yours is the most terrible crime a human being can commit. I accuse you of a wasted life… The penalty is death.” Horrified by the accuracy of the charge, Papillon wanders back the way he came, muttering, “Guilty… Guilty… Guilty…”

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

In any case, it wouldn’t be Breaking Out and Breaking In if we didn’t soon see some escapes.

Papillon, Dega, and another prisoner called Maturette make a break for it one night over the camp wall. To make an extremely long story short, they must sail to freedom by way of a leper colony and increasingly rough seas; but, arriving safely in Honduras, they’re forced to split up. Papillon runs into the rain forest with a local prisoner they happen to bump into on the beach, and the two of them are then hunted through the jungle by Afro-Caribbean trackers hired by the state. Many more events transpire—booby traps, cliff jumps, pearl-fishing tribesmen—before Papillon makes his way to a convent in a local town center, seeking refuge and forgiveness. However, the church being, in effect, a wing of the state, mistaking ideological correctness for Christian morality, the nuns turn him in. I mention this also to indicate how, in the film, the state works: it relies upon—indeed, it cannot function without—local yet unofficial representatives, people it can hire (trackers) or who it can trust to volunteer (nuns) in the name of state continuity. In other words, the state puts out a call when a gap or blind spot arises, knowing there will always be someone who answers it.

So Papillon is sent back to solitary confinement.

I’ll just make two final points, while admitting that I’ve hardly grazed the surface of the film.

1) Papillon’s final escape comes from Devil’s Island, the aforementioned island of sheer cliffs where even guards are seen as unnecessary, the prisoners physically and mentally exhausted and thus believed to be incapable of investing in the effort of escape. But Papillon one day notices something in the waters of the bay below, a rhythm in the waves that allows for anything thrown into the water to avoid being crushed on the rocks and, instead, be dragged out to sea.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

He first experiments with some coconuts—and then, lashing together a makeshift raft, he throws himself into the seventh wave and makes his way to final freedom.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

2) The movie closes with one of the most dramatically powerful end title sequences I’ve ever seen. To a haunting soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith, we’re shown shot after shot of the actual penal colony in French Guiana, left abandoned and rotting in the jungle.

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

In a sense, these end titles anticipate—and, in many ways, put to shame—much of what we now see today under the guise of “ruin porn,” or photographs of decaying architectural structures.

Regardless of the accuracy of the film’s many dramatic enhancements, the ruined buildings of Papillon have the benefit of context: when the film cuts to the roofless cells and overgrown courtyards of this horrible and violent place of exile, the futility of the entire escapade—the tragedy of anyone caught up in the empty colonial machine—becomes both obvious and crushing. It’s as if no one ever escaped from anything, because there was nothing there in the first place; we’re just left with empty and impotent buildings, dissolved in shafts of light.

[Images: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

By way of a very brief personal anecdote, when I first saw Papillon as a teenager, and the movie came to an end, I realized, stunned, that I had actually seen the ending before.

Back when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade, Papillon must have been on cable television, scheduled on more than one day for the same early morning time slot, coming to an end just as I got up and prepared to walk to school. There were thus a few days when I turned on the TV only to catch, without knowing what it was and at almost exactly the same moment each time, the film’s final voice-over narrative and these otherworldly shots of a dead prison in the rain forest, like some upstart challenger to Angkor Wat.

[Image: From Papillon, courtesy of Warner Brothers].

Ten years later, watching the film all the way through for the first time, I suddenly realized what it was I’d been daydreaming about in elementary school: the end titles of Papillon.

(Breaking Out and Breaking In will continue in two weeks’ time with the films of Breaking In, and, after I get back from a short trip, I will also continue to post about the Breaking Out series, which continues tonight with Rupert Wyatt’s The Escapist. Full schedule available here).

8 thoughts on “Discipline & Punish: Papillon (1973)”

  1. My father told me about Papillon when I was a child. I've been +30 years thinking about to watch the movie. Now I find this post. I think it is time to look for the movie and watch it.
    I think there was a remake in early 80s. Maybe I'm wrong. Nice post. Thank you.

  2. The extremes of solitary confinement comes to a head in this film. While solitary is more about incarceration than breaking out, it's interesting that in the last three films (Great Escape, Cool Hand Luke and Papillon) it is used as deterrent and/or punishment for escape. It also seems to act is one of the catalysts that increases the resolve of the prisoners to escape. So I think fair game for discussion.

    What I find really fascinating and challenging to understand is the idea of a prison inside a prison. A space designed to punish and deter inside a space that supposedly is already designed to achieve the same. It's a condensation of the principles of incarceration – a further isolation through the reduction of variation in the already limited and restricted interaction with (a) other people, (b) different spaces, and (c) ways to "do time".

    Not only is solitary about solitude (one person) but it is one space inhabited for an extended time with nothing to do. For Papillon that was 2 years after his first escape attempt, 5 years after the second.

    A striking pair of scenes is when Papillon first enters his cell and the scene when he first emerges. Upon entering the cell, Papillon counts out the steps that define the length of his cell. 5 paces. Two years later, the door is opened and he is told his term is complete. He steps out of the cell. Counts 5 paces. Pauses. Takes his sixth step before cursing and collapsing to the ground. For two years his entire world was 5 paces long. He hadn't walked six steps in a row for two years.

    While in solitary, the only remaining course of punishment and control is the removal of the only other real variable – light and dark – which (nearly) succeed in causing Papillon to lose his mind and spirit, as foretold by the captain of the guards: "We make no pretense at rehabilitation here. We're not priests. We're processors… We process dangerous men into harmless ones. This will be accomplished by breaking you. Breaking you physically, spiritually, and here [the head]."

    It is truly unimaginable cruelty and unimaginable that he survived.

    At least in the Great Escape, Steve McQueen had his ball to play with and pass the time (though also interesting how the bounce of the ball was used as a measurement/definition of the space of his confinement).

  3. " … like some upstart challenger to Angkor Wat."

    Nah, that'd be Col. Kurtz's compound in Apocalypse Now.

  4. One of my all time favorite pictures… wasn't the guy from "Chico and the Man" in there for a second as well? He's the Spanish speaking escapee that Papillon meets up with briefly…


  5. Papilon it seems is a fond memory for many fans of bldgblog I read Henri Charriere's Papillon in high school and had seen the film growing up half a dozen times as "family movies" along with The Italian Job, Cool Hand Luke, Escape From Alcatraz, and The great escape..So the Breaking Out and Breaking In series is for me a great flashback to watching movies in my living room – – Well what is even more interesting is the screen play and the way in which Dalton Trumbo, the man with the booming scraggly voice who says "France has disposed of you", tells a tale of escape and isolation -by virtue of his own experiences of escaping and being "disposed of" when he was blacklisted -isolated from his peers for a "crime" he to his dying day denied. A tale of escape from an escapee who during his blacklisted days wrote films under aliases to continue working while he was professionally "arrested" by his peers and his government; all the while telling tales of escape and isolation. This story as told by Dalton Trumbo makes the film even more interesting to watch for the 15th or 20th time.

  6. This is the second time I watched Papillon, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it with the architectural eyes that this blog has given me. What struck me was that this film offers the widest variety so far of the interplay between space and architecture. Mostly this is due to the double confinement pictured in the film; that through architecture (the prison), coupled with that of geography (the island); and it's fascinating to see how the balance between them shifts through the film.

    To start with the extreme; the solitary cell. It is striking that in contrast to for example A Man Escaped or The Great Escape, there are no thoughts on, much less attempts at escape, while he's in there. He's defiant, sure, but only to the extent that he's ready to die rather than give his friend up; his own will for freedom seems more or less paralyzed until he gets out and takes that important 6th step. When thinking about this I concluded that it's not so much because his cell here seems more impossible to break out from than for example the one in A Man Escaped (although, yes, it does); it's more because he's not able to see out. In the former ones, there was always a window, a keyhole, a daily promenade, that provided a link to life beyond the cell. Here, Papillon can choose between looking upwards towards bars through which only empty sky or guards' feet can be seen, or out through tiny holes to see nothing but a sterile, corridor; itself cell-like. This "visual confinement" is only further emphasized by the blackening out of the light as the final step towards making Papillon retreat inwards and even put himself on trial.

    While, as soon as he's outside, in the infirmary, his eyes wander towards a gate through which the outside can be seen, and suddenly, it is as though the architecture has become invisible for him. When they escape, the contrast to the former films in the series is inverted: the actual prison walls make an obstacle, sure, but one that is not dwelled upon at any length, hardly even acknowledged as one by the prisoners (which might be why they also loose one man in the chaotic breakout); any planning and hesitancy is projected towards what lies beyond the walls: the boat (which was bought before they even had an idea of how to get out of the prison, both in this, and the first, botched attempt) and the sea.

    This emphasis on space and freedom as something visual is replayed once again in the end. Papillon only needs to sit down and watch the horizon to feel the urge to escape come over him again; he rushes in and tries to get Dega on board before he even has a shadow of a plan.

    Another, less clear, pondering of mine is on the mysterious disappearance of the pearls-tribe. It is as though by painting another butterfly on the chief, Papillon infects the entire village with his own tendency for flight. But where do they escape, and from what? Only from their own architecture it seems…

    And finally; one of the most beautiful scenes in the film:
    D: "It seems so desperate. Do you think it will work?"
    P: "Does it matter?"
    This exchange seems to me like a distant, and more sentimental, echo of the compulsory urge to escape at any price in former films in the program. But here, there is no military duty, no honour, no longer a matter of escaping death or pain, not even any walls to break out from anymore. Here, it is simply something that is in his nature. He knows he's a prisoner and he can see the horizon, so he needs to try and reach it…

  7. I just watched the film after reading the book… I do have to say I was a bit put off because the book was so amazing and I had such high expectations for the film. After reading this post I decided to watch it again with fresh eyes and mind. IF however you haven't read the book please do yourself the favor. Such a engaging wonderful read. If you loved the movie the book will be a valuable one to read.

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