Thursday, March 25, 2010

The McQueen Persona, Part II: The Imprisoned Free Spirit (The Great Escape & Papillon)

This entry is for the Steve McQueen Blog-A-Thon at Jason Bellamy's blog The Cooler.

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed one aspect of the McQueen Persona, the Righteous Rebel, in two of his films, "Bullitt" and "An Enemy of the People". I had admitted that both films were both rather flawed films that were elevated by McQueen's performances, but never quite pushed him as far enough in challenging that aspect of his persona. As we take a look at a different aspect of the McQueen Persona, The Imprisoned Free Spirit, not only are both films much stronger, one of which I consider a genuine classic, but they do quite an effective job at building McQueen's image while almost cutting him back down to size in a way that few parts designed for movie stars do these days.

I will reiterate that I consider McQueen more of a great presence rather than being a great actor. "An Enemy of the People" represents the most that McQueen has ever stretched physically, but most of the time he occupied what we consider the "Steve McQueen roles" in movies. As with most stars, movies were made to tailor to his strengths of being a rebellious, confident man of action. McQueen was not the first actor to come to mind as someone you would hire to bring much emotional sensitivity to the film. The parts tailor-made for stars that I often find the most interesting are the ones that subtly subvert their personas and undercutting the adoration that movie star roles often court.

What better way to take down someone a couple of notches than by throwing them into prison?

Directed by John Sturges, "The Great Escape" is a World War II film that takes place in a new POW camp that is supposed to contain the most troublesome prisoners from other camps. Think of it as an all-star team of escape artists being assembled together. Now, despite it being in vogue these days to make sure that World War II is depicted with gravitas and realism, "Escape" makes no attempt to be anything than a great entertainment, while spinning one hell of a yarn. The film dedicates itself to the most absurd process of making an escape attempt that will empty the entire camp of prisoners and convinces you that it can be possible, considering how far they get away with it.

"Escape" is not necessarily a Steve McQueen star vehicle, but has him as part of an ensemble cast with characters from different countries including some actors with shaky accents (I'm looking at you, James Coburn), all trying to exhibit how equally smooth and resourceful they are. James Garner as Hendley "The Scrounger" gives McQueen some serious competition in the Cool Department. McQueen does receive first billing, but his character plays a peripheral part of the escape plan. During the first 20 or so minutes, McQueen's character Captain Virgil Hilts, the most notorious of all the prisoners, starts scanning the camp looking for weak spots. For the first third of the movie, he makes a couple of more escape attempts and winds up getting tossed in the Cooler, the place of solitary confinement where they keep all prisoners after failed prison breaks. At one point, he is enlisted by Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (played by Richard Attenborough) to make an intentional failed escape attempt so that he can gather intel about the area outside of the fence. Yes, he escapes with the intention of getting tossed into the Cooler.

These attempts lead to one of my favorite running gags in movie history. Each time Hilts is captured, the film cuts to a shot of the hallway leading to the Cooler where the guards walk McQueen, carrying a baseball and a glove while wearing an expression as if he had been sent to the principal's office for the third time in a week. The piece from Elmer Bernstein's score almost plays as both a tribute and ironic counterpoint to Hilts. When I think of McQueen, I consider his most iconic image to be that of Hilts sitting down at one end of the cell, throwing his ball to the other end and catching the rebound again and again. It is a pose that is heroic and rebellious, while also reminding us that this man is getting the piss taken out of him for his stunts. It is the ultimate image of a man's man not only accepting the consequences of his actions, but determined that he would do the same thing again when given another chance.

As opposed to the persona displayed in "Bullitt" and "An Enemy of the People", I feel there is a level of self-deprecation to McQueen's work. When you take away the righteous aspect of his rebellion, you wind up with a character who is not afraid to do some foolish things, such as his plan to escape with a fellow prisoner by digging with a spoon under the dirt like gophers, to gain his freedom. As McQueen also had a everyman quality to his presence, it is a little more relatable to understand someone who takes the blowback from his rebelliousness in stride and more than a little self-awareness. Hilts is a free spirit, a nonconformist whose imprisonment seems offensive due to his nature. After all, he was a pilot before he was caught. In the final motorcycle chase with German soldiers, Hilts performs so many stunts that you wonder if he only wanted to escape in the most flamboyant way possible. And, yet, he cannot make that final jump. Tangled up in barbed wire and still trying to touch the ground on the other side of the fence, he has been brought down to earth again, as most people often are, and is brought back to the camp for more Cooler time.

It becomes evident how McQueen's persona is undercut in this film during the final credit roll. Every time I watched this film, I could not help but laugh when they reach McQueen at the roll call of actors, which also lists each of the characters' specialties in the mission, giving Hilts the title of "Cooler King". Not only was it accurate, since being thrown in the Cooler was his main contribution to the escape, but he is shown there standing equally defiant and dumbfounded. When I watched "Escape" on the big screen for the first time last year with an enthusiastic audience, this was finally a laughter I could share with others though it was clearly one of admiration for that character. You knew once Hilts got out of the Cooler, he would make another escape attempt. You cannot keep a free spirit down.

While "The Great Escape" represents a certain tweaking of the Persona, "Papillon", made 10 years later, finds McQueen once again stepping into a role that requires him to be imprisoned for long periods of time while also attempting multiple escapes. Though I consider "Escape" to be a classic film, I feel "Papillon" was more of an attempt to de-heroicize the McQueen Persona further than the earlier film. "Papillon" is also a true star vehicle for McQueen with Dustin Hoffman and a couple of other actors being the only significant supporting players. McQueen is allowed to show more shadings as an actor than he has been allowed in other roles, even "Escape".

"Papillon", directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, aims to be a grittier movie than "Escape", which is undeniably about being a popular entertainment. It is based on the "memoir" of Henri Charriere who claims that he was sent to prison on Devil's Island for a murder he did not commit. The reason I am using quotation marks for "memoir" was due to the book being widely considered a hoax, as he actually submitted it to his publisher as a novel first and then later claimed it was autobiographical. Still, the story makes clear that anyone who tries to escape Devil's Island will be met with multiple year stretches in solitary confinement (thus, there is no clever name like "Cooler" given to those cells) and eventually the guillotine.

Much like "The Great Escape", McQueen's Papillon is already planning his escape from the start. On the boat ride to Devil's Island, he begins to trade favors with other inmates including Hoffman's Louis Dega. Though he represents the rebellious streaks of previous McQueen characters like Virgil Hilts, Papillon plots his escape silently, choosing not to openly defy the prison guards as Hilts did in the POW camp. When he observes a prisoner getting beheaded at the guillotine, you can sense a certain level of fear in McQueen's performance. He does not consider the consequences of being caught as lightly as Hilts.

Much like "Bullitt" in the first part of this series, I had not seen "Papillon" in well over two decades, so the movie felt completely fresh when I revisited it recently. I was pretty thrown that I found the film as moving as I did, a quality that I admittedly would not assign to most of McQueen's films, since many of them operate on his wavelength. The film has a somewhat off-kilter tone and mood to it that is quite distinctive from the more straight-ahead styles and rhythms of the typical Steve McQueen movie. The directorial style is not always in service to the McQueen Persona, although sometimes to its disadvantage. The dream sequence where Papillon, in a mock outdoor courtroom setting, is forced to admit that he wasted his life comes off as a clumsy stylistic choice and has the character announce his regrets as opposed to showing them. Still, I believe "Papillon" pushes McQueen to give one of his least conventional star turns and would rank it as one of his best performances.

There is a long stretch in the film that showcases McQueen's best work as an actor, especially how it recalls his "Cooler" scenes in "The Great Escape" from 10 years earlier. When Papillon does his first two year stretch in solitary confinement, the film actually devotes nearly a half-hour of screen time to really make you feel that time. This is a marked difference from seeing McQueen bounce a baseball off the wall in his cell. Instead, the film details how the guards give him slop to eat, a bucket of dirty water to drink and another bucket to use as a toilet. At one point, when the guards discover that someone (Dega) is smuggling Papillon a coconut, they punish him even further until he gives up who was slipping him the food.

The consequences of those actions shows McQueen at his most vulnerable. His clothes become more dirty and torn. He begins to age quicker than the time that has passed. At one point, Papillon is ready to break and comes close to giving up Dega, only to experience doubts by babbling incoherently. McQueen plays the tail end of this section, as if he is close to breaking down in tears. Unlike "The Great Escape", you truly see a free spirit get nearly broken and it is more painful to watch, as McQueen himself is such a powerful film icon. Though the role clearly fits into the McQueen mold, it demonstrates how often the strongest performances by stars like him are the ones that truly challenge their personas. In McQueen's career, I would especially point out this section in "Papillon", as well as several moments in "The Sand Pebbles".

The roles of Papillon and Hilts are fascinating to me because it becomes so much about these characters' inability to break free, which is why I refer to it as "The Imprisoned Free Spirit" as opposed to just "Free Spirit". It is a bit odd to see these star turns which are based on the main characters failing often and hard. Yet, Papillon and Hilts are not martyrs, but persistent in their desires to not be under any other man's authority. This persona of McQueen is one that is from its time, but yet it does not feel dated. In modern films, movie star turns have become almost exclusively about winning against the forces of evil, as opposed to celebrating the notion that just fighting the battle is worth it. But we live in simpler times when we must see evil vanquished on the screen.

A film where your movie star continuously fails to break out of a POW camp? Who wants to see that? A movie where your star has become somewhat delusional that he decides to float on a bag of coconuts across the sea and, by sheer luck, makes it to the other side without getting the chance to punish those who framed him? No way, not inspirational enough for these days. Although McQueen was more of a great movie star than a great actor, there is much to admire about most of the roles he chose to suit his persona. There was a certain distance from the King of Cool that shrugged off easy sympathy for his characters. His more righteous characters had the hint of the anti-hero in them. Even his free-spirited characters convinced you that freedom was something to be earned and fought for while not exactly being above playing dirty or exhibiting too much self-defeating cockiness.

While there are other personas to McQueen that I have not talked about, I believe that there is so much to be discussed about what he represented. Genuine movie stars like McQueen will be considered and reconsidered as time passes because we discover so many different aspects to his work, as well as seeing ourselves in him. You can see an actor struggling with the idea of making his emotions more visible. The fascination with McQueen is watching each of his movies to see what he lets slip out while equally still being assured by his sense of Cool. That is what makes McQueen a lasting film icon.

And now another song:

The Great Escape was seen last year at the Walter Reade Theater during the Steve McQueen Retrospective. Papillon was viewed on DVD via Netflix.


Jason Bellamy said...

Steven: It was worth doing the blog-a-thon just for your two-part series. What a gift for McQueen fans like me. Thanks again.

I think your analysis here is quite sound. And though McQueen was hardly an unknown when The Great Escape came out, I think it's easy to forget that this was the film that most clearly established him as the hero. This is significant because he does this while repeatedly failing, as you point out. How many actors could have pulled that off? No matter how many times I see this movie, I'm always deeply moved by that moment when Hilts, straddling his crashed motorcycle, leans toward the other side of the fence, hopeful of impossible escape right down to the last moment.

As for Papillon: The two things that hurt the film from being more celebrated today, I think, are (1) its length (it takes that very 70s-esque diversion when he's living a life of luxury with the islanders) and (2) its conclusion, which has Hoffman and especially McQueen in heavy makeup and shuffling around the island. I've always felt that most scenes in which actors must put on makeup to play significantly older either fail immediately or just send the audience off in the wrong mood. Granted, Papillon's escape is triumphant. That's a good note to go out on. But who wants to see McQueen hunched over?

The 30 minute segment chronicling Papillon's first stint in solitary is indeed the film's high point. No question about that. It's rather remarkable how gripping it is and how quickly it passes considering that Papillon isn't supposed to speak and only has food buckets to work with as props.

I could go on. Again, thanks for writing these. I'm still envious you've seen The Great Escape on the big screen. Come on, AFI Silver ... help me out!

Hokahey said...

Steven - This is a masterful analysis. Before reading Jason's comment, I wanted to talk about that dramatic image of Hilts in the barbed wire. Don't want to be redundant, but I'll reference that anyway. That image says a lot and I'm glad his ride ends there. When I first saw this movie at the age of 11, I was rooting for him to jump the taller barrier as well. Most likely in a movie today, he would make the higher jump too! But now I'm so glad he ends up in the wire - because it is a touching note of reality in a film that diverges from historical fact to present some entertaining fantasies as well. Though foiled, Hilts is defiant to the end because he goes to the trouble of standing up - and it looks very painful! - in the wire to reveal his dog tags (I'm not a fucking spy!) and to give his impish sneer (I gave you bums a run for the money!). But he can't escape - that's the reality sometimes. What a masterful plot choice!

Yeah, Papillon is problematic. There are some great moments lost in a sea of overlongness. I will never forget the image of the prisoners marching through the streets of Marseilles (I think) surrounded by double ranks of soldiers with the inner ranks walking backward so they can keep their guns on the desperate convicts.

Steven Santos said...

Once again, thanks Jason and Hokahey, for the comments.

One thing I hope comes out of this piece is more people revisit "Papillon". Oddly, the complaints about its lengthiness and its diversions didn't really bother me and I think the film has aged better than "Bullitt". In fact, its odd rhythms are what make it unique amongst films in McQueen's career, as well as pushing him to deliver one of his best performances.

Craig said...

Really great insights. (And a catchy song that made me grin and even got me a little misty-eyed.) I'd never thought of comparing Papillon and The Great Escape, and though in hindsight it seems obvious you still took it further than anyone could have.

I've seen parts of Papillon several times (it's an AMC favorite) but never from start to finish, yet I've seen enough to be impressed by McQueen's performance, that beneath that stoic facade he did want to stretch himself, test himself as an actor. I wonder if working with Dustin Hoffman did for McQueen what acting alongside Montgomery Clift did for John Wayne in Red River: whether it forced him to raise his game?