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Details At A Glance

Category Drama Theatrical Trailer - 2.35:1, not 16x9, Dolby Digital 2.0 (3:55)
Featurette - The Magnificent Rebel (11:51)
Biographies - Cast and Crew
Isolated Music Score
Year Released 1973
Running Time 144:24 minutes
RSDL/Flipper RSDL (82:27)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region 2,4 Director Franklin J. Schaffner
Allied Artists Pictures
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
Starring Steve McQueen
Dustin Hoffman
Victor Jory
Don Gordon
Anthony Zerbe 
Case Transparent Soft Brackley
RPI $36.95 Music Jerry Goldsmith

Pan & Scan/Full Frame No English (Dolby Digital 5.1, 448 Kb/s)
German (Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, 192 Kb/s)
Isolated Music Score (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384 Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
Theatrical Aspect Ratio 2.40:1
Macrovision Yes Smoking Yes
Subtitles English
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes

Plot Synopsis

    Well, to be honest this one fell to me for review by default, but returning to the film after so many years is something of an eye opening experience. I never saw this on the big screen so only know the film from a couple of incarnations on television, since I have never owned the film on video. This is a vastly different film in its correct aspect ratio. I had long since forgotten that the film was directed by the director of one of my all time favourite films, Patton, but there are some enormous similarities in the broad scope of the look of the two films when you see them both in their widescreen glory. If you need a good example of how the impact of a film can be lost in that abomination called Pan and Scan, this is it. Take out the claustrophobic feel of the Pan and Scan process and give the film its widescreen glory, and there is little doubt that the film is more powerful.

    Papillon is the story of petty criminal Henri "Papillon" Charriere (Steve McQueen), who has been framed for, and convicted of, the murder of a prostitute and sentenced to life imprisonment. Along with an assorted bunch of criminals, including famed counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), he is transported to the French penal colony of French Guiana. Since Dega is somewhat despised by his fellow prisoners for his wealth and the fact that many lost their money on his counterfeit bonds, he strikes a deal with Papillon to protect him in exchange for funding his escape attempts. Life is harsh in the colony, and escape is discouraged by the fact that the first attempt is punished by two years in solitary confinement, with the second offence being punished by five years of solitary. Since Papillon has been framed, he never loses the desire to escape, resulting in plenty of time in solitary. Both Dega and Papillon are eventually transferred to the hell of all hells - Devil's Island. There are no bars in this jail as the strong currents and voracious sharks ensure enough of an escape deterrent - or at least so the authorities believe. Papillon never gives up, even on Devil's Island.

    Based upon the book by Henri Charriere, this is broadly speaking the true story of his life in the French penal system. It is an enormously powerful insight into the indomitable spirit of one man. Since it broadly revolves around just two characters, Papillon and Dega, the whole film lives or dies upon the work of the two leads. The film was not let down in any way. This for me is arguably the greatest performance from Steve McQueen. It is as fine a performance as one could expect, covering such a wide range of tone, from almost naive fresh prisoner to almost insane solitary confinee. His performance was matched by that of Dustin Hoffman, in a slightly less central role of the almost scatter-brained eternal realist. The direction from Franklin J. Schaffner is superb and despite the length of the film, and what is actually a difficult story to tell in a film, there is no real drop off in intensity throughout. But really it is the cinematography that stands out here - the uncompromising use of widescreen vistas to tell the story of one individual results in a visually memorable film.

   Whilst the story really is good, the quality of the cinematography and the performances elevate this film into the status of a classic. As an indictment of the French penal system, it serves its purpose well indeed. Whilst this is certainly not going to be to everyone's taste, this is a fine example of an epic from the early 1970s.

Transfer Quality


    We have seen some decent enough transfers for films even older than this from Columbia TriStar and others, which is perhaps why this one is an enormous disappointment. This transfer never seems to indicate that they got on top of the mastering problems that are presumably the result of some problems with the source material.

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and it is 16x9 enhanced. According to the generally authoritative Widescreen Review, the theatrical aspect ratio of the film was 2.40:1, which is very close to the transfer ratio. Note that the packaging is in error stating this to be a 1.85:1 transfer, although interestingly the review of the Region 2 version by DVD Review (which should be identical as this is a dual coded DVD) indicates a ratio of 1.85:1 for the release.

    Considering that the film is bordering on twenty-eight years old, the overall appearance of the transfer is most exemplary. Generally sharp throughout and extremely well detailed, there is little to complain about in terms of the clarity. Sure, there is a degree of edge enhancement that at times does get a little too much beyond the pale, most noticeably during scenes featuring an ocean background. However, I have seen worse. The most glaring example of the edge enhancement is around 136:48, where a slightly too large to ignore reddish/black shadow line is far too noticeable against the blue sea. Thankfully for a film of this age there is not too much of a problem with grain, although at times there is quite distracting pixelization of the background which occasionally also gets combined with grain, resulting in a rather distractingly poor image. Shadow detail is generally quite decent, although this is obviously a little wanting in the scenes when the solitary confinement cell is completely shuttered up for instance. Low level noise did not seem to be much of a problem with the transfer in general.

    The colours on offer here are a little muted, but that is a reflection of both the age and the location of the film. Whilst the palette may be a little lacking in saturation in general, a lot of the jungle scenes display a rather decent glossy vibrancy to them. The big problem here is the skin tones, where the colours do get just a little off - although quite how the skin tones of a prisoner after two years in solitary would look is perhaps hard to know. In general, the transfer could perhaps have done with a bit more depth to the blacks, but the overall result is not too displeasing. Certainly the blues of the ocean are in stark contrast to the rest of the film, but this is more than likely an intended contrast. There is no issue with oversaturation here and as a result of the general trend to undersaturated colours, you can obviously expect nothing in the way of colour bleed.

    Where this transfer starts to go seriously awry is in the actual mastering. The transfer is rife with periods of pixelization in the background, of varying degrees of blockiness and ugliness. Particularly noticeable examples can be found around 22:24, 54:42, 66:00 and 116:44, but this by no means an exhaustive list. The problem is especially compounded when there is movement in the image. There is a consistent problem with minor aliasing in the transfer, with railings being especially prone to the problem, that does become quite tiresome overall. There are also some rather ugly examples of the problem in the gendarmes' caps around 2:25 which really are hard to ignore. At times the pixelization of the background is compounded by shimmer and the result gets really distracting. There is also a fault in the print at around the 17:32 mark, on the extreme right hand side of the transfer that may be an issue if your display device is not prone to extensive overscan. There are naturally plenty of film artefacts in evidence overall, with some sections of the film being quite badly affected, whilst others are quite free of the problem. Overall, this is one of the poorer efforts to come from Columbia TriStar. I do wonder how much of the problem relates to the source material, but whatever the reason I am guessing that on a large screen display this is going to look very ugly indeed. On a smaller display device than mine, perhaps this will be a lot easier on the eye, but overall I found this to be an annoying transfer to watch - not exactly awful but with far too many transfer problems to make it something easy to watch.

    This is an RSDL formatted DVD with the layer change coming at 82:27. Whilst it comes at the end of a scene, and thus is not disruptive to the flow of the film, it is just a little noticeable.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-to-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    Rather annoyingly, we have been blessed with a Dolby Digital 5.1 remaster soundtrack without the option of the original soundtrack. I say annoyingly, as the 5.1 remaster is a somewhat flawed effort.

    There are three soundtracks on the DVD, being an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, a German Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack, and an Dolby Digital 5.1 Isolated Music Score. I only very briefly sampled the German and Isolated Music Score soundtracks, and stuck with the English default.

    The dialogue was clear and generally easy to understand, although naturally there were sections that by design are presented at a lower level and are supposed to be slightly more difficult to hear. Unfortunately there seemed to be a slight problem throughout the film with audio sync. It is not entirely distracting but there is just the odd occasion here and there when the transfer seemed out of sync enough to make you notice. This may be the result of some sloppy ADR work of course, rather than an inherent transfer problem.

    The original score comes from Jerry Goldsmith. Although the film seemed to be rightly devoid of any score for much of the time, the overall support the score gives the film is decent enough. I would not classify it as amongst the best that he has ever written though, even if it does end up doing its job well enough.

    The overall 5.1 soundtrack has to be considered a failure. The main issue is that despite this being a remastered soundtrack, the overall feel of the sound is very dated and on occasions quite congested. Indeed, at times it really sounds like a 2.0 soundtrack with nothing at all coming from the rear channels and most of the sound coming from the centre channel. Whilst appreciating that the film really is dialogue and silence-driven - there are extended sequences of silence during the film - I would have thought that the purpose of the 5.1 remaster was to add ambience to the sound picture. It fails the test in general, with the most obvious example being the scenes in the swamp around the 89:00 mark. Whilst there is lots of bird and insect noise, it is all coming from what sounds like the centre channel with nothing much from the front surrounds and nothing at all from the rear channels.

    Similarly, the purpose of the bass channel I would have thought was to add a bit of bass enhancement when required (such as the guillotine scenes), but apart from the engine room scene on the ship, the bass channel really does not give much support. Indeed, on a couple of occasions the overall sound picture has been utterly destroyed by grossly excessive bass reverb in the music score (around 20:20 is a bad example) that is completely out of character to the film. I really am most disappointed with the soundtrack, and would much preferred to have had the original mono soundtrack. After all, the film itself is not one that really requires much in the way of bass or surround channel support, being so heavily orientated towards dialogue and silence. Thankfully, there did not seem to be much in the way of distortion or other imperfections in the actual soundtrack.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    A reasonable if not especially memorable extras package is on offer here, probably no better or no worse than to be expected in a film of this age.


    Interestingly themed in accord with the Region 1 DVD slick cover rather than the Region 4, it is not especially noteworthy otherwise.

Theatrical Trailer (3:55)

    A rather lengthy effort by modern standards, and unusually presented with what seems to be behind-the-scenes clips in small 1.33:1 ratio boxes in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio frame before moving to the trailer proper. It comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, it is not 16x9 enhanced and is blessed with plenty of film artefacts. The red credits also flare quite badly and exhibit plenty of colour bleed.

Featurette - The Magnificent Rebel (11:51)

    For its age, it looks pretty good although it is still blessed with some film artefacts of course. Presented in a Full Frame format, it is not 16x9 enhanced and comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. A reasonably interesting behind the scenes look with the concentration being on the two stars, although there is an interesting bit where the real Henri Charriere reminisces about the real prison whilst walking on the set of the prison.

Biographies - Cast and Crew

    Regrettably very brief efforts only, completely inadequate given the two stars.

Isolated Music Score

    Whilst I have not listened to it all, it seems an odd choice of film to bless with such an extra, given that significant portions of the film contain silence. What I have heard is decent enough, even though it is not the most memorable film score ever composed.

R4 vs R1

    It would appear that there is no appreciable difference between the Region 1 and Region 4 releases, other than the fact that the English soundtrack on the Region 1 release appears to be a 384 Kb/s effort, rather than the 448 K/bs effort on the Region 4 release. The Region 1 reviews I checked out would seem to indicate a similar sort of video and audio transfer on the Region 1 release, therefore the Region 4 release would seem to be the preferable since it has a higher bit rate audio transfer and PAL video formatting.


    Papillon is a powerful film, featuring a couple of great performances from actors at the height of their powers. Unfortunately, the film has not gotten a transfer of similar stature and this is one where perhaps you are well advised to rent first in order to determine whether the faults affect you as much as they do I. Seeing the film in all its widescreen glory for the first time ever is nonetheless an experience that I am glad to have had. Do I need to mention the rubbishy faux Amaray case? Note the review DVD exhibited two instances of extreme picture break up, at about 64:26 and 77:55, which seem to be inherent DVD problems as they did not disappear after extensive cleaning of the DVD. One can only hope that this is a rogue DVD and not indicative of a general problem across all DVDs of the film.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris (have a laugh, check out the bio)
14th January 2001

Review Equipment
DVD Pioneer DV-515; S-video output
Display Sony Trinitron Wega 80cm. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Audio Decoder Built in
Amplification Yamaha RXV-795. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Speakers Energy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL