papillon movie poster

Last night, we watched the Dustin Hoffman/Steve McQueen film Papillon. It was long. Very long. It’s about two men sentenced to life in the penal colony in French Guyana called Devil’s Island. If this movie sounds at all interesting to you and you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now. Really, stop reading because spoilers ahead. So in this movie, Steve McQueen (err, his character, whatever) is determined to escape. He’s planning it from the moment he boards the ship that takes him from France to South America. The rumor on ship is that Dustin Hoffman (meaning his character) has lots of money, so SM offers DH protection from bodily harm for enough money to buy him a boat while he’s on the island. They spend some time working in swamps on the island, moving trees and hunting for blue butterflies, etc., when SM tries to escape after he saves DH’s life. He is caught and he gets 2 years of solitary confinement.

To be honest, I never really thought solitary confinement would be that bad of a punishment. Until this movie. SM barely makes it out alive, but he does. While SM was in a cell by himself for two years, DH is gaining some social clout, due to his money and also he just seems like a very capable, nice guy. He has enough power within the prison community that he’s able to nurse SM back to health. While SM is recuperating in the infirmary, he is also planning his next escape despite the threat of 5 years of solitary confinement on the second attempt at escape. He is desperate to get out. DH helps him with money but decides not to go with him. He is willing to wait. He has a tip from the inside that his wife will buy his release and prison doesn’t seem so bad to him. Turns out, DH is forced to attempt escape with SM. They are successful. For awhile, but ultimately, both end up back on Devil’s Island. This time, SM has 5 years of solitary confinement. He is released, looking weaker and a little crazier, and sent to a remote island where the sharks and the crashing waves make it impossible for prisoners to escape.

SM meets up with his old friend, DH, who has been on the island for an undisclosed amount of time. He has a garden. He has a little house. He has an amazing view of the ocean. He raises pigs. Although he, too, seems a little loopy, he also seems resigned. SM is not on the island a day before he starts planning to escape. The plan this time is to build a raft-like structure from coconuts that he will throw off a cliff and then ride the current to … who knows where. He wants DH to go with him, but DH says no. SM does it, and you see him floating off into the ocean and a narrator says that he made it to safety.

But the whole time I am wondering if I am Dustin Hoffman or Steve McQueen. Ok, I know that I am Dustin Hoffman. I know that I would be resigned to my “fate” and make the best of it. I would be willing to settle into life, working in the garden, raising pigs, caring for my little house. It didn’t look so bad, I guess. He had independence, to a certain extent. But I’m wondering if I wouldn’t rather be Steve McQueen, valuing freedom over ease so much that he risked his life. There is a scene earlier in the movie where a prisoner is taken to the guillotine. He fights against the soldiers the entire way, even to the point where they place him on the board and then let loose the blade. He is fighting. And I thought about Dylan Thomas. If I were led to the guillotine, would I fight up to the end if it meant a chance (however slight) of escape? Or would I go gently?


  1. Tom · September 17, 2009

    I decided a long time ago that if I am ever given a choice to be more like Steve McQueen or Dustin Hoffman that I will always choose Steve McQueen. Just watch “The Magnificent Seven” to see why.

  2. Amanda Nicholas · September 17, 2009

    Fight the good fight with all your might!!! I would fight. FREEDOM!!! You know that movie was not as bad as you make it out to be. In fact it’s clear that you were quite inspired by it all. It really is amazing what the human spirit can overcome. Cheers!

    • ktelaine · September 17, 2009

      I just want to clarify that I didn’t think it was bad. Just long.

  3. mom · September 18, 2009

    I saw that movie while in the hospital and it was not only long but bad (at that time). I felt like I was in a prison, too. There is nothing like the joy of being free to run on grass or a sandy beach, or climb a trail on a forested mountainside, or stand under the stars and listen to the crickets at night when a fresh breeze is blowing. To contrast that with lying in a hospital bed hooked up to tubes, etc. makes me immensely grateful just to walk where I want to go.

  4. Hoop · June 8, 2010

    Resigned?Doesn’t look that bad?We are talking about Devil’s Island, a most undesirable,isolated and inhospitable place to reside.Did you see where SM launched his raft from?Do u think he just wanted to add an extra degree of difficulty to the escape attempt?If this was the best location then imagine the terrain.They are resigned to stay here mostly because their minds have been ravaged by mental illness. It would take me getting to that point for me to stop making attempts to escape.Death, being the alternative, never looked so good.

    • Katie · June 8, 2010

      Hi Hoop. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Even though it’s been 6 months or so since I’ve seen the movie, I still feel the same. There is a contrast between SM and DH from the beginning. DH is willing to remain in Devil’s Island from the beginning. He trusts in outside forces (his wife, govt officials, money) to get him out. He was that way even before his mind was “ravaged by mental illness.” SM is never willing to leave it to chance. He takes action for himself. My post wasn’t so much about Devil’s Island as it was about the difference between how the two characters faced their imprisonment and my thoughts about how I face challenges as well.

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