Papillion, Revisited

The archives in Hollywood are bulging with remakes. Many consider remakes evidence of a dearth of creativity (“hey, what about this film? It worked pretty well before, we still have the rights, let’s do it again”). Others, likely sitting in proximity of the green light button, see a remake as a chance to go back and do it better with the benefit of hindsight. Both perspectives are undoubtedly in play when sequels and prequels are being considered.

In this case, the 1973 original film was a quiet tour de force starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The remake brings the decidedly less noteworthy Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek into the lead roles, with rather mixed results.



The story derives from several books on the subject, including the eponymous autobiography, which was a best seller in France for many weeks. The plot involves an escape from the rugged Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of South America, orchestrated by the lead duo of a safecracker and a forger. The ultimate escape occurs after several failed attempts. The prison life portrayed provides ample incentive for the ongoing urge for freedom. Hunnam plays Henri “Papillon” Charrière, the French criminal whose nickname means “Butterfly.” Hunnam is fairly taciturn in the face of his struggles. Rami Malek is Louis Dega, the counterfeiter with a heart. (Malek will be seen later this year in another biopic, as Freddie Mercury in the Queen film “Bohemian Rhapsody”).

The bleak conditions of the prison are juxtaposed with the mostly gorgeous surroundings of the pervasive ocean, mirroring the characters’ seemingly hopeless conditions. The previous documentary work by the Danish director Michael Noer provides the gritty realism necessary to keep this fairly decent remake afloat.


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.