June 23, 1974 [Papillon]

Papillon is on a second run, and my cousin and I saw it at the dollar show in the mini-mall, the print a little scratched and the projection jumpy--but two and a half hours later we looked at each other and knew what we both wanted: to stay in our seats and watch it again.

It was a maybe-true-life adventure, one helluva yarn, like Lawrence of Arabia--but without the jaundiced eye--not with Steve McQueen starring, an actor so straightforward I wonder if, by comparison, I've ever really told the truth myself. McQueen may not reveal too much, but he's honest about it; I wouldn't fault him if he simply looked into the camera to deliver his lines, his eyes--even though ravaged by solitary confinement, the salt wind of Devil's Island, his own mad determination--never letting him down as he tries to tell us that Papillon is an instinct--the urge to survive--and he'll put up with anything--even Dustin Hoffman's fussy little forger, peering like Mole in The Wind in the Willows at the wide world set against them, a friend to the end.

When Papillon emerges from his years in solitary, his frail insistence that he remain alive reminded me of my father, blind and wheelchair-bound, hunched over and lighting up a Kool, doggedly making it through one more day. He broke my heart, and McQueen does, too, even as he tosses the raft over the cliff and improbably bobs to the surface, tiny and free.


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