Papillon is a 1973 American crime drama prison film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, based on the best-selling autobiography by the French convict Henri Charrière.

The film stars Steve McQueen as Henri Charrière ("Papillon"), and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega. Because it was filmed at remote locations, the film was quite expensive for the time ($12 million), but it readily earned more than twice that in the first year of public distribution.[3] The film's title is French for "Butterfly," referring to Charrière's tattoo and nickname.


Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen), is a safecracker nicknamed Papillon because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest, and is wrongly convicted of murdering a pimp. In 1933 he is sentenced to life imprisonment within the penal system in French Guiana. En route, he meets a fellow convict, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a forger and embezzler who is convinced that his wife will secure his release. Papillon offers to protect Dega if he will underwrite the former's escape once they reach French Guiana. The two eventually develop a friendship.

After defending Dega against a sadistic guard, Papillon escapes into the jungle but is captured and sentenced to solitary confinement. In gratitude, Dega smuggles extra food to Papillon. When the food smuggling is discovered, prison guards cut Papillon's food rations in half, believing that hunger will force him to reveal the name of his benefactor. Though emaciated and half-insane, and reduced to eating insects to survive, Papillon refuses to give up Dega. After two years he is released from solitary confinement, having spent six months in total darkness and on half rations. A grateful Dega, who would not have had any ill feeling toward Papillon if he had told the warden that it was he who arranged the extra food, wants to pay back Papillon, which Papillon states is not necessary. However, Papillon plans another escape with Dega's help. During a medical exam, a fellow inmate offers to secure them a boat on the outside with the help of a man named Pascal. Clusiot (Woodrow Parfrey), whom Papillon and Dega long ago befriended, begs to go along, to which Papillon ultimately agrees. Before the escape attempt, Papillon urges Dega to join them stating "now, while you have a chance." Dega declines, still believing that his wife will eventually get him released, which Papillon does not think will ever happen as the prison system now "owns" him.

While recovering in the infirmary, Papillon meets a homosexual orderly named André Maturette (Robert Deman), who insists on joining their escape plot. During the escape, Clusiot is knocked unconscious by a guard, but Dega, sensing an opportunity and reflecting on what Papillon told him, makes a run for it with Papillon and Maturette. The three do escape, Dega seriously injuring his ankle in the process during a high fall. Pascal is waiting for them outside the prison wall and the men escape into the night. The next day in the jungle, Pascal delivers the prisoners their boat. They discover that the boat is not seaworthy, at the same time discovering that Dega's injury is a fracture. A local trapper (John Quade), who reveals that Pascal has repeatedly cheated prisoners by taking their money and then arranging to have them captured by bounty hunters, has killed the waiting bounty hunters. He refers Papillon to a nearby leper colony, where they obtain supplies and a boat.

After reaching the mainland, the trio are accosted by a group of soldiers. The soldiers open fire. Maturette is captured along with Dega, still crippled by his broken ankle. After evading the soldiers, Papillon lives for a long period with a native tribe; one day he awakens to find they have moved on. He finds they have left behind a small bag of pearls, which they use to barter with western traders. At a police checkpoint, Papillon pays a nun with a pearl to join her entourage and goes with her to a convent. Admitting he is a fugitive but stressing that he is not a murderer, Papillon asks the Mother Superior for refuge, leaving her all his remaining pearls to prove his good faith. She turns him over to the authorities, keeping the pearls. She justifies her actions by stating that if he is guilty of crimes, he has fed the poor with his donation of the pearls; if he is not guilty of crimes, God will watch over him in prison.

As punishment for his escape, Papillon is sentenced to five years in solitary confinement. He has gray hair when released and sees Maturette, who dies a short while later. He later watches the authorities dump Maturette's dead body into shark-infested waters. Papillon is moved to the remote Devil's Island, where he reunites with Dega, who has given up all hope of being released with his wife's aid. From a high cliff, Papillon observes that every seventh wave that comes into a small cove rebounds from the rocks and is powerful enough to carry a man out to sea.

Papillon again urges Dega to join him in escaping. The two men manufacture two floats out of bagged up coconuts. As the two men stand on the cliff side, Dega decides not to escape and begs Papillon not to take the leap, which will probably kill him. After embracing Dega, Papillon leaps from the cliff and, grasping his float, is successfully carried out to sea.

A narrator states: "Papillon made it to freedom. He lived the final years of his life, a free man." He outlives the prison, which later closed. The prison is shown abandoned and overgrown by jungle plants.


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Papillon was filmed at various locations in Spain and Jamaica, with the cave scenes filmed beneath what is now the Xtabi hotel on the cliffs of Negril. The town scenes near the beginning of the film were shot in Hondarribia in Spain.[4] The penal colony scenes were filmed in Falmouth, Jamaica, and the swamp scenes were shot near Ferris Cross. But Steve McQueen’s famous cliff-jumping scene near the end of the film took place from the cliffs in Maui, Hawaii.[5] McQueen insisted on performing the cliff-jumping stunt himself. He later said that it was "one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life." McQueen was paid $2 million for his services in the film along with the contractual stipulation that he receive first billing over Dustin Hoffman.[6] In addition, author Henri Charrière himself acted as consultant on location: he let the makers of the film know of the things he encountered during his years of imprisonment.


The song "Devil's Island" by the American Thrash / Heavy Metal band MEGADETH (written by band leader / singer / guitarist Dave Mustaine) from their 1986 album "Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?" was inspired by this film. Dave mentions this before playing the song during the band's "Rude Awakening" live DVD.


The score to Papillon was composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. The film marked Goldsmith's fourth collaboration with director Franklin J. Schaffner, following his Academy Award-nominated scores to Planet of the Apes (1968) and Patton (1970). Both the director and musician shared the belief that film music should be used economically; they wanted the music as commentary only in sequences where it can emphasize the psychological aspects of the film. In Papillon, the film is 2 1/2 hours long, but has 40 minutes with music.

Goldsmith's compositions, characterized by a late romantic symphonic and impressionistic style suffused with a metered, exotic timbre (using instruments from Caribbean folk music), are distributed mainly in the second half of the film. They generally accompany scenes outside the prison, during the various escape attempts by the protagonist. He used a delicate melodic approach, dominated by a very catchy theme expressed as a waltz, which was often played by an accordion. This instrument was associated with the French origin of the protagonists. The theme became famous with the popularity of the film, and it was released in many performance variations by different record companies.

The score was partially produced on vinyl in 1973 and reissued over the years. In the 21st century, an edition was produced on CD by Universal Records France. For the first time, this has the complete version of music from the film (it includes about five minutes of previously unreleased tracks). The DVD version of the English-language version of the film includes an option to listen to Goldsmith's music as an isolated audio track.

Goldsmith had his sixth Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score for this soundtrack. It was one of the American Film Institute's 250 nominated soundtracks for the top 25 American film scores.[7]

Box Office

The film was a hit, earning North American theatrical rentals of $21.3 million.[8]

Critical reception

Roger Ebert's review at the time of the film's original release was two-of-four stars; he said that the main flaw was a failure to gain audience interest in McQueen's and Hoffman's characters: "You know something has gone wrong when you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over."[9]

Papillon currently holds an 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes from a sample of 22 reviews.

Awards and honors

In 1974, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (Jerry Goldsmith) and a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actor, Drama (Steve McQueen).

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


As of October 2015, it was announced that Red Granite Pictures is developing a remake of this film with Danish director Michael Noer attached.[11] In August 2016, it was announced that Charlie Hunnam will play the lead role of Henri Charrière aka Papillon, whilst Rami Malek will play the role of Louis Dega.[12]

See also


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  3. "Movie location and cost information", TV Guide
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  5. Franklin J. Schaffner (Scarecrow Filmmakers Series) (1985), Scarecrow Publishing, p. 381. ISBN: 978-0-8108-1799-9
  6. Sandford, Christopher. Steve McQueen: The Biography. (2002), Taylor Trade Publishing, p. 247. ISBN: 978-0-87833-307-3
  7. AFI's 100 Years Of Film Scores at
  8. "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 20
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External links

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