A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the 1973 Papillon is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name describing the true-life exploits of Henri Charriere, a French safe-cracker sent on a one-way ticket to France's worst prison in colonial French Guyana. The two-hour-plus movie is filled with tension as the prisoners are mistreated, starved, beaten, and otherwise abused. Naked dead bodies are tossed around disrespectfully and life, friendship, loyalty, and other humane virtues have little value in this setting. Escape attempts are plotted for maximum suspense, which can make the final hour hard to watch. A gay character offers sexual services in return for leniency. Native villagers dress scantily, the women's breasts bared. A character utters a muted "s--t" in dire circumstances, and there are some gay slurs. Prisoners are beaten and psychologically mistreated. One prisoner spends six months in a totally dark cell receiving half rations until he's on the verge of death. A man is guillotined for bad behavior in front of other prisoners, and his severed head is seen. A prisoner is bitten by a bat and blood is seen in the wound. Prisoners hide items in their rectal cavities. Parts of a man's gangrenous leg are cut out without use of anesthetic.
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What's the story?
PAPILLON is based on the true story of Henri Charriere, a 1930s safe-cracker known as Papillon (Steve McQueen) and his descent into the harrowing oblivion of the French penal system in primitive French Guyana and Devil's Island. He and his fellow convict, a wealthy counterfeiter named Dega (Dustin Hoffman), strike a deal: Papillon protects the weak Dega and his hidden money in exchange for financial support of an escape attempt. As they demonstrate loyalty to each other in extremely trying situations, the friendship grows and they each risk their lives to help the other. Papillon is thrown into solitary for two years because he attacks a guard attacking Dega, and Dega sends him extra food to help Papillon survive the stint. In turn, the warden cuts Papillon's rations to force him to name the individual sneaking him food, but he refuses. Half dead, he rejoins the general population, where Dega has earned privileges that make it possible for him to assist another escape attempt. By then Dega's wife has used bribery to legally petition the French government for Dega's early release in a few years. Papillon urges Dega to escape with him, suggesting that the wife may prefer to sit in Paris with all of Dega's wealth to spending it for Dega's release. The next daring escape attempt goes awry and Dega breaks his leg, but worse yet, the escapees are betrayed.
Is it any good?
This is a meticulously made adventure movie that shows off state-of-the-art technology of 1970s moviemaking, a time long before computer-generated special effects. Although the story isn't dated, the less-than-pristine color photography may puzzle some younger viewers. Director Franklin L. Schaffner (the Oscar-winning Patton) tames this shaggy story of unrelenting strife into a highly watchable, episodic saga about the drive for freedom at all cost. Henri Charriere was still alive and watched some of the shoot in Jamaica. (He died before the film was released.)
Older teens who like Papillon may be interested in the 2018 remake and discussing which version they prefer.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the warden's announcement in Papillon that his prison doesn't deal in rehabilitation. He says he processes dangerous criminals into harmless ones by physical and psychological means. Do you think criminals deserve to be treated this way? Why or why not?
A man is guillotined for bad behavior. Why do you think the other prisoners are forced to watch?
What do you think about one of the movie's central themes, that for some, freedom is more important than living?
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