The eventful life of Papillon

This summer the film Papillon debuted in European cinemas. A remake of the 1973 movie of the same name, it is directed by Michael Noer and inspired by the dramatic story of Henri Charrière, whose autobiography shook the entire world.

By Alessandra Ivaldi / 13.10.2018

Charrière, better known as “Papillon” because of the butterfly he had tattooed on his chest, was born in 1906 in the Ardèche, France. In the 1920s he lived in Paris as a petty criminal.

26th March 1930 represented a point of no return in his life. That day the butcher Roland Legrand, also a pimp, was shot and died shortly thereafter in the hospital, but not before revealing to the police the name of his alleged murderer: Papillon Roger.

Papillon was thus arrested and sentenced to hard labour, despite the fact that he always claimed he was innocent. He was transported to the terrible prisons in the penal colonies of French Guiana, notorious for brutality towards prisoners.

He attempted daring escapes together with other convicts, but was always caught and brought back to jail, where he was further punished with years of inhumane solitary confinement. He pretended to suffer from dementia in order to be sent to an asylum, where it could be easier to escape. Unfortunately he had to abandon this idea, since in the meantime World War II broke out, and during this period escape attempts were punished with the death sentence.

Papillon spent eleven terrible years in prison. According to his book, he was transferred to Devil’s Island, notorious for cruelty towards the prisoners and considered an inescapable prison. On this very island Papillon planned his last escape, and was successful, finally managing to leave French Guiana by constructing a makeshift raft of coconuts. However, his misadventures were not finished yet. His escape brought him to Venezuela, where he was arrested and put in prison again. Luckily, conditions in the new prison were better than in French penal colonies.

In 1945 he was finally released and could settle in Caracas, where he also obtained residency thanks to his marriage with a Venezuelan woman, Rita Alcover. He opened a restaurant and spent some years relatively peacefully. He also became a sort of local celebrity, but in 1967 an earthquake destroyed everything he’d worked so hard for. This prompted Papillon to write and sell his autobiography, which immediately became an international success. His memoires shed light on the terrifying living conditions in French penal colonies and greatly affected public opinion all over the world – especially in Europe.

A new life thus started for Papillon, who also worked in the movie business as actor and co-worker with filmmakers, determined to bring his story to the screen. The most important of these filmmakers was Franklin J. Schaffner, who directed the 1973 movie Papillon, which was a great success, with actor Steve McQueen playing the role of Henri Charrière and Dustin Hoffman that of Louis Dega, forger and fellow convict of Papillon.

Papillon’s final years were relatively peaceful. In 1970 he was pardoned by the the Department of Justice and could return to Europe, he subsequently settled in Fuengirola, Spain. He died of throat cancer in Madrid in 1973 and was then buried in Ardèche next to his mother.

Many researchers today think that Papillon’s autobiography should be taken with a pinch of salt; it’s possible some of the accounts of episodes and misadventures were actually experienced by his fellow convicts and not by himself, as he claimed. Whatever the truth may be, Papillon’s book certainly managed to open our eyes to the violence that happened for years in European penal colonies, an aspect of our history that was pushed into the background for a very long time.


Alessandra Ivaldi (Italy)

Speaks: Italian, English, German, French

Europe is... a cultural heritage.



Rebecca Wenmoth (United Kingdom)

Author: Anja

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