In 1941, a Frenchman named Henri Charriere — whose nickname was “Papillon” (butterfly) — claims he escaped from Devil’s Island, a remote prison camp in French Guiana that was said to be inescapable. Charriere’s daring feat — he says he jumped from a terrifyingly high cliff and floated to freedom on a bag of coconuts — was the finale of an 11-year stretch in French Guiana’s brutal penal colony system, a living hell that Charriere later chronicled in his books Papillon and Banco.
Charriere’s claims have been disputed for years (for one, there are apparently no records of him being incarcerated at Devil’s Island), but his story of survival in an environment that was inhumane beyond belief turned his books into best sellers.
It also formed the basis of a classic 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen as Charriere and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, a fellow prisoner with whom Papillon became fast friends until the latter’s escape (Dega died in prison, but the exact circumstances and date remain unknown).
Now director Michael Noer has filmed a new version of Papillon, drawing from Charriere’s book, which stars Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) as Charriere and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as Dega. “What was so beautiful was the connection of those two characters,” says Malek about their take on the story. “It sticks with you…for me it was always about trying to enhance that and convey how much two people would need each other in a situation like that.”
One thing that is very different about the new version: Hunnam, unlike McQueen, did not perform the frightening cliff jump that Charriere makes in his final bid for freedom.
“I didn’t know until we started shooting that Steve had actually done that cliff jump,” laughs Hunnam, who says that the man who did the stunt for the remake was the most accomplished living cliff diver in the world. “It was so dangerous that he did it once and said, ‘We’e pushing it if we do this again.’” Hunnam adds, “So hell no, I didn’t do that!”
Papillon is out in theaters today (Aug. 24).