From Shakespeare to Hemingway the resilient human spirit rising above life’s challenges is always a great human drama. Nietzsche said: “What does not kill you only makes you stronger.” This paean to a noble human spirit against the existential strains of life has been a paramount theme for masterpieces of arts, especially in literature and cinema appealing to the universal audiences, touching the deepest valleys of human consciousness and pulling at the heartstrings all in a polyphony of humanity. It is this very reason that Papillon (1973) directed by Franklin J. Schaffner still evokes ineffable inspiration and indelible impression so powerfully displayed on the screen with the authenticity of a true story of a real-life character.
Papillon, a butterfly in French, is a nickname of Henri Charriere (played by Steve McQueen), a safe-cracker framed for having murdered a pimp because he has a butterfly tattoo on his chest. Henri was sentenced to life imprisonment in French Guiana and decides to escape from the man-made inferno where death is the only way out of the murderous maltreatment doubled with dysentery and hard labor, which makes me wonder if the Nazis, especially Himmler and his ilk of the Final Solution, adapted the French Penal Colony system into concentration camps during World War II. And yet, Papillon’s will to escape and to live as a free man supersede the hellish daily realities fraught with endlessly cruel labor, inhumane solitary confinements, prolonged starvation, and deaths of his fellow inmates, all of which seem to conspire to break his will to live so as to conform to the totalitarianism of inhumanity in the name of punishment of his crime that he didn’t commit. Escape after escape, hope against hope, and betrayal after betrayal is fortune’s malice trying to overthrow his sovereign state, but Papillon’s sturdy mind exceeds the compass of her will, even if it takes him to the furious watery main and the murderous cliff in the Devil’s Island.
The stellar performance of Steve McQueen, playing the role of Henri Charriere, renders a sense of verisimilitude of the character and the story so convincingly that you dive into his emotions without realizing a boundary between a screen and yourself, and upon watching the film, you feel that you have contracted a severe biological strain of Stockholm syndrome with the Henri character on whose biography the film is based, which bestows the power of reality and the authenticity of truth upon your mind. Steve McQueen, often referred to as the King of Uber Cool, is excellent in portraying the convict with extraordinary feats of fortitude and rebellion against the totalitarian penal system that wrongly imprisons his free spirit. McQueen’s abilities as a character actor shine when he commands his presence in a way that seems wholly authentic without overt gestures and contrived charisma but with his eyes sparkling even in the filthy prison uniform that speak a thousand words surrounding him like a radiant halo as a token for his invincible will to freedom.
This film is in a way reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ in terms of old Santiago’s indomitable burst of pep to fight the shark appropriating his hard-won big fish. The old man might look feeble and weak in comparison with the mighty power of the wide sea, but it is his will to win the battle against the force of sea that is sublimated into a victory of the human spirit with the resounding dictum of this feat of humanity: “Man can be conquered, but cannot be destroyed.” That’s what comes to my mind while watching this great film about an ordinary human being with an extraordinary power of will to freedom. Hamlet uttered: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” To Henri Charriere, such contemplation is a meaningless echo of a defeatist. For Henri is more of Macbeth working out on his plan for life as a free man with stubborn courage: “We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking-place, And we’ll not fail.” And Lo! Did he not take the advice of the Bard! And so splendidly!
Author’s Note: I watched the film last night and was totally immersed in the characters and the story. Not that I am an admirer of Steve McQueen but that he’s one of the greatest actors who vanished like a short-lived comet to the universe gives a special meaning to this film. This is one of the best performances in his acting career and will always linger in our hearts.