40 Years Later, The Cruelty Of Papillon Is A Reality In U.S. Prisons

Andrew Cohen | The Atlantic | December 16, 2013

Two generations after the famous film about solitary confinement first appeared, it's still relevant to the deplorable treatment of inmates in America's prisons today.

Forty years ago today, the movie Papillon first appeared on American screens. Based upon the semi-autobiographical novel by Henri Charriere, the film chronicled the desperate life of a condemned prisoner, played memorably by Steve McQueen, who was sent (for the crime of murder, for which he was framed) to hard labor at the infamous French Guiana penal colony known as Devil's Island. There were scenes of brutality, there were scenes of compassion, but the heart of the film were McQueen's scenes in solitary confinement on the island in the middle of nowhere. Here's the trailer:

Although it was based on a bestselling book, and although the book had received rave reviews, the film did not earn universal praise when it appeared (and still seems hokey at times today). McQueen and his co-star, Dustin Hoffman, sought and received a king's ransom for their roles—the film was the most expensive of its time. A contemporaneous Los Angeles Times reviewer complained of "problems of emphasis and tone." And even the director himself, Franklin J. Schaffner, of Patton fame, conceded that he "had to take certain liberties with" the book to "construct a viable film."

If you saw the film when it first appeared, or saw it for the first time 20 years ago on television, no doubt one of your first reactions was to note the dated nature of the content. Thank goodness, you might have said decades ago, this inhumane treatment of prisoners, this sadistic approach to punishment, happened in another time (the 1930s) and in another place (colonial France). It could never happen here!, you might even have said as recently as 10 years ago if you stumbled across a replay of the film late one night.