Papillon: The 1973 movie had two superstar talents, Hoffman & McQueen

Papillon The 1973 movie had two superstar talents, Hoffman and McQueen

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Movie ‘Papillon’ balances two superstar talents

Hoffman, McQueen together: Will 1 plus 1 still equal 2?

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03/11/2024 06:00 pm GMT

From The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) Dec 26, 1973

There aren’t many directors who can convincingly handle the epic form. Movies painted big on wide canvasses require skills that a lot of directors, however talented, don’t possess.

In addition to having a narrative sense, a visual imagination and the ability to handle actors, the epic director has to marshal vast quantities of money and effort. He has to be, in a sense, like a general: He must be creative and a tactician at the same time.

Among contemporary directors of epics, David Lean probably comes first to mind, with “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Zhivago.” Sergei Bondarchuk, the Russian, masterminded the biggest movie ever made, the $100-million “War and Peace.”

Vintage Papillon movie poster - 1973

But of them all, perhaps the most intelligent, the one most able to cope with size without losing human detail, is Franklin Schaffner.

His best-known movie is “Patton,” which won him an Academy Award in 1969. He made the original “Planet of the Apes”, which was infinitely better than its endless sequels. He made last year’s “Nicholas and Alexandra,” and now he’s back with one of the big Christmas releases, the $13-million “Papillon.”

It is his most expensive, most ambitious work yet. It contains not one but two superstars (Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman) and is a period picture, which requires enormous attention to details of costuming, locations and dialog.

It also represents a rethinking — by Schaffner and his writers, Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. — of the best-seller it is based on.

The book by Henri Charriere told of conditions in the infamous French penal institutions — the original Devil’s Islands — of the early 1930s.

Charriere escaped from one of the islands with a combination of prodigious determination and an ability to absorb punishment. The book is his story. He claimed it was true, despite doubts expressed in the French and English press.

“It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not,” Schaffner said. “I happen to believe personally that large parts of it are probably true. It is a matter of fact that Charriere was there and saw the things he wrote about. But the story is a natural movie subject, even if he made up every word.”

The original problem with the book, Schaffner said, was that it had only one protagonist — Charriere — and no dramatic conflict except for Charriere’s personal battle with the system.

Prisoners - 1973 Papillon movie - Hoffman and McQueen

The movie’s story has been changed by the introduction of the Dustin Hoffman character; now, there’s McQueen as the rugged, untaught individualist, and Hoffman as the intellectual. Their relationship is at the center of the movie.

I asked Schaffner why so many recent movies have been about two men, rather than a man and a woman. The list is a long one, and includes the Paul Newman-Robert Redford team (represented this Christmas by “The Sting“) and, this year alone, more than a dozen others (“Scarecrow”, “Charley Varrick”, “The Laughing Policeman”, etc.).

“I think that’s because it’s so difficult, at this moment in American society, to make a convincing love story,” he said. “Social relationships are so much in flux that you can’t organize a story people will buy. And there’s a shortage of major female stars who can really hold their own in a major role. There’s Streisand, and who else?

Scene from Papillion
Scene from Papillion, 1973: Don Gordon, Bill Mumy, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman

“One other thing about the idea of having two stars in a movie, like McQueen and Hoffman: I wonder if people really go to the movies any more specifically to see a star. They seem to be going to watch the interaction between two stars. The chemistry.

“Redford and Streisand, for example. The combination intrigues people. Newman and Redford — they’re one of the most interesting combinations since Gable and Tracy.

The Sting, starring Robert Redford & Paul Newman: About the classic movie, plus vintage interviews

“When you have just one star in a movie, there’s a kind of imbalance. He’s intrinsically more interesting than the other people on the screen; you almost have to plan a visual strategy to get the audience to look at the others. With two stars, you have equal weighting and the dramatic situations work better.”

Papillon movie scene from 1973 film

He said McQueen and Hoffman have totally different acting styles: “McQueen hasn’t really done any stage work for years, and Hoffman — although recently he’s been mostly in movies — is still a stage-oriented actor.

“Hoffman did a lot of psyching himself up for important scenes; McQueen just sort of went ahead and did them. It doesn’t make a bit of difference how an actor prepares for a scene, as long as the effect is there on the screen.”

I asked Schaffner if he didn’t occasionally hunger for a nice little picture, after his years of marshaling millions of dollars worth of filmmaking all over the United States, Europe and the Caribbean.

“Not really. I don’t really think of the size of the movie, but about the story. If it’s not an interesting story, people aren’t going to pay for scenery and a lot of spectacular photography.

“And then there’s another thing that’s funny about this business: before you make your first epic, nobody thinks of you as an epic director. But all you have to do is make one, and they think, ‘A-ha, he can make a big picture.’ And so that’s what you keep getting offered.”

Steve McQueen in Papillon - 1973

Original vintage movie trailer for ‘Papillion’ from 1973

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