The true story behind Henri Charrière, the French convict who is the inspiration behind 'Papillon'

The true story behind Henri Charrière, the French convict who is the inspiration behind 'Papillon'

The Rami Malek and Charlie Hunnam-starring 'Papillon' is set for an August 24 release. Directed by Michael Noer, the biographical drama chronicles the story of French convict Henri Charrière (nicknamed Papillon) and the extraordinary story of his imprisonment and escape from a notorious prison located on Devil's Island in French Guiana.

The film was received well upon initial premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and once again drew attention to Charrière's incarceration and oft-miraculous escape, which the former convict detailed in his autobiography of the same name in 1969. On release, the book became an instant sensation in France, garnering widespread fame and critical acclaim, becoming a number 1 bestseller and earning its place in the list of modern classics.

Steve McQueen portrayed Charrière in the 1973 adaptation of the novel (Source: IMDb)
Steve McQueen portrayed Charrière in the 1973 adaptation of the novel (Source: IMDb)

It's popularity saw Franklin J. Schaffner adapt it into a feature film in 1973, with Steve McQueen as Charrière and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, a fellow convict who, in exchange for Papillon's protection, agrees to finance the great escape. The latest adaptation will see Hunnam take up the role of Charrière and Malek, that of Dega, and has taken inspiration from its predecessor, but is the story worth telling? An overview of the autobiography certainly seems to suggest so.    

In 1931, Charrière was falsely convicted of the murder of a pimp named Roland Le Petit and subsequently sentenced to life in prison, as well as ten years of hard labor. Imprisonment at Caen would follow, after which he was transferred to the St-Laurent-du-Maroni prison in the penal settlement of mainland French Guiana. And so began the repeated escapes and capture, near-death experiences, quests for vengeance against those he felt had wronged him, and a brief interlude where he was adopted as a member of a local Amerindian tribe.

As spectacular and fantastic as it sounds, the authenticity of Charrière's book has been called into question numerous times in the past by a few noted historians. His penchant for storytelling combined with the fact that a few instances in the book are suspiciously similar to the accounts recorded by René Belbenoît in his 1938 novel 'La Guillotine Sèche' ('Dry Guillotine') meant that critics have stated that as little as 10% of the biography represents the truth. Charrière, however, insisted the events he wrote down were truthful and accurate. There are arguments that support both sides, but most will begrudgingly agree that the truth is unlikely to top his version of the story.

'Papillon' accounts for a 14-year period in Charrière's life between 1931 and 1945 after his murder conviction and until his eventual release from a mobile detention camp in El Dorado, Venezuela. Having learned of the violence and murders that were common amongst convicts in the prison colony where he was headed, Charrière almost immediately began plotting his escape, befriending Dega, a former banker convicted of counterfeiting, to aid him in his quest. He also joined forces with two other men, Clousiot and André Maturette, to escape from the prison.

A sailboat journey to Trinidad follows, and it's here that the movie and the book possibly diverge. While the Noer feature throws a sharp focus on Charrière's unlikely alliance with the quirky Dega and the pair's lifelong friendship after their breakout from St-Laurent-du-Maron, his autobiography takes the reader through his nomadic journey in and out of South America's prisons and his tussles with law enforcement.

Trinidad offered little respite for Charrière. While he was aided by a British family, the Dutch bishop of Curaçao, and several others in evading the police, his freedom would be short-lived. He was recaptured on the coast of Columbia and imprisoned once again. He then engineered a second escape which proved a lot more fruitful. 

During his run, he entered the Guajira peninsula, a region occupied by the Amerindians, and assimilated himself into a coastal village whose primary occupation was pearl diving. He went on to court two teenage sisters and impregnated both, spending the next several months in bliss before deciding against the idle lifestyle and seeking vengeance. It would be a decision that he would ultimately regret and one that would prove to be his undoing.

On returning to civilization, he was immediately captured and imprisoned at Santa Marta and then transferred to Barranquilla, before finally being extradited back to French Guiana and sentenced to two years of solitary confinement. The experience would be a harrowing one. Charrière wrote that he was locked up for all 24 hours of the day, and not even let out for fresh air or exercise. 

He would spend the next 11 years going in and out of prisons in French Guiana, moving from incarceration to incarceration, each punctuated by brief periods of freedom. Countless escape attempts unsurprisingly accompanied each imprisonment but most failed, prompting increasingly brutal responses from his captors and resulting in another 19 months in solitary confinement. 

Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek will star in the latest adaptation of the novel (Source: IMDb)
Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek will star in the latest adaptation of the novel (Source: IMDb)

It was not that Charrière wasn't creative in his plots either. One plan involved him feigning mental illness to escape the then-recently established pro-Nazi Vichy Regime's death penalties for attempted escape, as insane prisoners could not be sentenced to death for any reason. But his most ingenious plan would be to personally request for a transfer to Devil's Island, the smallest but most 'inescapable' prison island. 

He would study the waters and discovered possibilities at a rocky inlet surrounded by a high cliff — he noticed that every seventh wave was large enough to carry a floating object far enough out into the sea that it would drift toward the mainland; he experimented by throwing sacks of coconuts into the inlet. A final escape with a fellow pirate prisoner would follow, resulting in his permanent liberation in 1941.

Both the men jumped into the inlet, using sacks of coconuts as makeshift rafts, and the seventh wave carried them out into the ocean. After several days of drifting under a relentless and draining sun, surviving on nothing but coconut pulp, the pair made landfall in mainland Guyana. While his partner would succumb in quicksand, Charrière managed to make his way to relative safety before he was once again captured.

The Guyanese authorities imprisoned him for a year in Wakenaam and then released him as a Guyanese citizen, spelling an end to the Frenchman's extraordinary 12-year journey through South America's prison system. 

The rest of his life was spent in less excitement than his jail-breaking days. Upon his final release, he settled in Venezuela, married a Venezuelan woman, and went on to open restaurants in Caracas and Maracaibo. He even attained a sort of minor celebrity status, going on to appear in numerous local television programmes before opting to move back to his home country and penning his remarkable story.

Of all the benefits Charrière reaped from the popularity of his book, the biggest was undoubtedly the pardoning of his murder charge in 1970. 

He went on to write the follow-up to 'Papillon' with 'Banco,' which documented his life in Venezuela, his attempts to gain funds to seek revenge for his false imprisonment and to see his father, and many of his failed enterprises including diamond mining, bank robbery, and a jewel heist.

He spent his last few years reaping the royalties from his books, and quite aptly, portraying a jewel thief in a 1970 film called 'The Butterfly Affair.' A life that boasted of more than its fair share of thrills and frills would come to an end on 29 July 1973, with Charrière passing away from throat cancer. 

Always the rebel, his proudest moment was quite possibly when one French minister attributed "the moral decline of France" to miniskirts and...Papillon. 

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 The true story behind Henri Charrière French convict inspiration Papillon