I used to watch a lot of French films, so I guess it’s fitting that I should now and then take up Hollywood mainstreamers with a marginal connection to France – Papillon here and The Day of the Jackal there. (Coincidentally, these two films share another characteristic which is quite the opposite of the Hollywood norm – there is no love interest in either.) Or maybe not. Nobody is going to confuse Franklin J. Schaffner with Truffaut, Godard, or Varda.
Still, even though Papillon has truthfully got to be one of the sloppiest major studio releases ever released, it has enormous power, power that is heightened and intensified by the fact that Henri Charriere really did escape from Devil’s Island and lived to tell the tale. It’s a good thing that Schaffner had great facility with this kind of picture because the mistakes in the movie border on the incredible – liquids, both blood and water, quite visibly splash on the camera lens and completely destroy all suspension of disbelief. The guillotine scene is unintentionally hilarious, with continuity and editing goofs that make you wonder if the crew was stoned both during filming and in post production; and the penultimate scene in which Papillon dives into the ocean and we can clearly see the diver supporting the float beneath him – so readily discernible that he or she could almost be a part of the story – these are all truly debauched and unworthy. (There are, in fact, more mistakes, easily Googled. I don’t have the heart to go through everything. One involves the great actor Anthony Zerbe in the role of the leader of the leper colony.)
Whatever; here I want to talk about one small stretch of this long movie, and that’s the closing credits, which compromise not quite a full two minutes. This sequence almost makes me think that Schaffner actually planned a lot of the errors in order to have them work in concert with the credits at the end as a kind of reflexitivity.
As Papillon floats in the ocean on his makeshift raft after his daring jump from the cliffs, a narrator heretofore absent is mailed in from the universe to inform us that he escaped, lived the rest of his life in freedom, and outlived the notorious French penal colony. It isn’t clear to me what the advantage is of having a narrator bash in as an uninvited guest like this, and putting the message in text on the screen would have been just as intrusive and distracting. Perhaps Schaffner felt the point was too difficult to get across with more scenes in a “show, don’t tell” kind of way. Perhaps more scenes would have made a long movie even longer, and thus a little less commercially viable. Whatever the case, I think the consistent breaking off of the suspension of disbelief, whether intentional or not, sets up the images that accompany the credits in the end in a new and different way because watching the closing credits becomes an important part of understanding this movie.
I’ve often wondered what percentage of an audience actually sits and watches the final credits without popping the disc out or leaving the theater. It must be very low, and that’s because a definitive conclusion to the film has usually already been shown on the screen. Nobody cares who the gaffer or the third assistant director is. But here, as we watch the images of the abandoned prison – empty buildings eroded by time and covered in unsupervised vegetation – the enormity of the task that Papillon undertook, his quest for freedom, grows larger and larger in our minds. How many of us could match his zeal? The number is probably smaller than the number of us who sit through the closing credits.
This is a film full of action and violence, which necessarily makes for graphic scenes. But Schaffner also has an eye for the type of more understated, nuanced scene that a lesser director wouldn’t think of lining up. For example, in a scene showing the yard of the notorious prison the camera starts on a small lizard sitting atop the blazing hot roof of the building. A scene depicting a butterfly hunt pays significant attention to the fluttering insects trying to avoid the nets. In a scene in which the prisoners first arrive on the island a hog is shown happily rolling in the mud in the bottom left of the screen. And so on.
But the final scenes that I want to draw attention to here are devoid of people and animals and only show the various parts of the decrepit prison as backdrop for the names of everyone involved in the making of the film while haunting music by Schaffner’s habitual composer, Jerry Goldsmith, builds to crescendo. The end effect upon us is, of course, contemplation of the nature of the very nature of time. Time, we are being told by these pictures and the music in accompaniment, destroys everything. Sometimes the force of a human will – Papillon’s in this case – can combat it, or stall it off, but in the end the result is always a victory for time. And let’s not forget the cross breeding of the film and the meta-film, which is, overall, one of the most interesting features of Papillon.