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?