I have long admired the work of director Franklin Schaffner. A master of widescreen epics and action films, he is perhaps best known for Patton and the original Planet of the Apes. Papillon, a 1973 action adventure starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, based on Henri Charrière’s autobiography of the same name, is one of the director’s more baffling films. Given its best selling success, Charrière’s book was bound to be filmed by someone, but as an expensive would-be epic? And did it need two big stars like McQueen and Hoffman? Both were at the top of their careers when they made the film, but what did anyone think they could bring out in each other? McQueen’s tight-lipped, athletic stoicism is just about the polar opposite of Hoffman’s scuttling, Method nasality. Their characters are supposed to be indefatigably loyal to each other, but they hardly seem to be in the same movie.
One of the consequences of having such big stars is budgetary expansion to match the scope of a movie to their salaries. This inflation is no doubt where Schaffner comes in. The story of Papillon is essentially a Saturday afternoon adventure, but with McQueen and Hoffman involved, the normally limber hijinks of a con on the run get transformed into stiffly pictorial formalism. For example, was it really necessary to recreate the prison camp in French Guiana at full scale? When hundreds of prisoners are corralled together in France before being shipped to the tropics, do we really need to see them marching through the streets? What do we gain when the prisoners are arranged in neat, rectangular formations like the shot above?
Working again with cinematographer Fred Koenekamp (who also shot Patton) Schaffner lends these widescreen compositions undeniable gravitas, but that isn’t necessarily a compliment. The handsome, self-important imagery is out of keeping with the violent, trashy action. It’s one thing for Schaffner to begin a Patton with an eye popping image of George C. Scott standing in front of a wall-sized American flag. After all, Patton was a general who led thousands of men in battle. Charrière, on the other hand, was a petty crook. Nothing in his character warrants the bloated treatment. Indeed, the two most successful sequences in the film—an extended period with McQueen in solitary confinement, and a brief idyll among pearl-diving natives—are the furthest removed from the epic pretensions. (They are also both virtually wordless.) Otherwise, a hot-footed low life’s scramble to stay alive is turned into a serenely formal display of production resources. I admit it is that very formality that attracts me to Schaffner’s films, but is it really right for this story?
Papillon is hardly the only over-produced film in the history of Hollywood. It may nonetheless offer a blatant example of how big budgets do not always work to a film’s advantage. There’s a reason some genres are quick and cheap: too much money or ambition gums up the works.