Movie poster for Papillon. Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman peer through a prison door


Title: Papillon
Released: 1973

Fix: Prison Break, LGBTQ, Based on a True Story
Platforms: Papillon

Netflix Summary:

Caged for a murder he didn’t commit, petty thief Henri “Papillon” Charriere (Steve McQueen) finds himself trapped within the walls of a French penal colony, determined to escape, in this film adaptation of Charriere’s true story. Joining forces with fellow convict and quirky counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) and armed with dogged persistence, Papillon makes a daring bid for freedom.

FYA Summary:

Based on the ‘true’ story of Henri ‘Papillon’ Charrière, who was sent to the notorious penal colony of French Guiana in 1933 for a murder he ‘didn’t commit,’ and subsequently escaped several times.

Familiar Faces:

A gaunt looking Steve McQueen in Papillon

Steve McQueen as Papillon

By the way–Dad–, it’s pronounced ‘pap-pee-yon.’ That’s French for butterfly, referencing the tattoo on his chest. And when you’re a Frenchman with that name, you better be tough.

He was a real guy who really did repeatedly escape from the penal colony in the ’30s, before eventually making it to Venezuela and opening a strip club. He actually served as a consultant on this film.

So how much of his story was true? Did he really spend a total of seven years in solitary? Did he live with the Indians in Honduras? Did the residents of a leper colony actually aid in his escape? Was he really betrayed by a convent of nuns?

The actual Papillon died the year this film came out and he faded into legend.

Dustin Hoffman in prison stripes in Papillon

Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega

A wealthy counterfeiter, Dega is waiting for his wife back in France to secure his release. Meanwhile, he uses his money to bribe guards for an easier existence. So how did he smuggle his money into prison? Why in his back pocket of course (think about it).

Realizing that other prisoners know he has gold in his belly, he hires Papillon as a bodyguard and they become friends.

Robert Deman in Papillon

Robert Deman as André Maturette

Like Dega, he was a real-life guy. And his character was one of the first instances of a positive portrayal of a gay man in Hollywood. You know. As a murderer.

Couch-Sharing Capability: Testosterone Overload

This movie fails the Bechdel Test hard, but if you’re not squeamish, this is a good nail-biter. My father and I have enjoyed this film for years.

Money shots:

*A leper, goading Papillon to share a cigar

*Honduran prisoner killed by spike trap

*Papillon making friends with topless native girls

*Papillon freaking out in solitary

*The whole ‘hiding money up your ass’ thing

*Prisoner being guillotined in the courtyard

Recommended Level of Inebriation: High

Not that you’d need to drink, I just feel the urge to be as macho as Papillon. Take a shot of raw rum while watching Papillon and Dega wrestling alligators in the swamps.

Use of Your Streaming Subscription: High

Hey, if you’re tired of watching Shawshank, this is a great prison break movie. And a wonderful history lesson. French Guiana was France’s equivalent of Australia. Getting transported was generally a life sentence, as you were required to settle as a colonist after your sentence. Hello, malaria!

Modern day French Guiana is the home to a space center. It’s also no longer a colony, but officially part of France, which means there’s a sizeable chunk of the EU in South America.

Oh, and they’re supposedly remaking the movie, so I’m excited about that.

Hey, you bastards! I’m still here!

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.