Papillon by Henri Charrière
Papillon is a book by Frenchman Henri Charrière. It is an autobiographical novel about Charrière’s imprisonment in the French penal colony of French Guiana and covers a period of about fifteen years. The original novel was written on a series of exercise books and is presented in just that way. Charrière describes his experience of imprisonment as a terrible one. He escaped and was recaptured many times and ended up in solitary imprisonment twice. The first time was for two years and he was kept in solitary for 24 hours a day. In his second bout of solitary a new officer takes over the running of the area and prisoners are let out for exercise every day. At one point in his escape Charrière encounters a tribe of Indians and joins them for many months, even marrying one of the Indian girls but despite finding this apparent paradise, he leaves and is imprisoned again. He eventually escapes from Devil’s Island by jumping into the sea aboard a sack filled with coconuts. The book is an incredible read and I found it one I just couldn’t put down. It is filled with action and adventure but also with thoughtful observations about the human condition and there are many moments when simple acts of kindness stand out to the author against a background of cruelty and inhumanity.
The book was an instant hit when it was published in France in 1969 and the author, Henri Charrière, nicknamed Papillon because of a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, became a French celebrity. He died in 1973 but always maintained the book was true and based on his own recollections despite claims to the contrary. Whatever its origins the book is a true classic adventure story.
On paper this should have been a brilliant film; Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman star, there was a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr and music by Jerry Goldsmith. The director was Franklin J Shaffner, who I’ve not heard of but there are plenty of big names involved who would normally guarantee a great film. They even had author Henri Charrière who acted as an advisor to the production. Somehow though, they managed to turn out something of a dud. It’s hard to put the finger on what went wrong but reviewer Robert Ebert said the big flaw was that the audience failed to gain interest in the McQueen and Hoffman characters. I think the big problem was that the book was a long book, packed with incident and instead of trying to cram the whole book into a film, perhaps the producers should have concentrated on just a part of it. Steve McQueen was a reasonable actor and he was good in basic action roles but I just don’t think he was good enough to play Papillon. The film skips over many interesting elements of the book and at the end of the film when Charrière is imprisoned on Devil’s Island, McQueen appears to be an old man which wasn’t the case in real life. My advice: Don’t bother with the film, read the book.
The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams
I’ve been trying to remember which came first for me, the book or the film. After some reflection, it was probably the film but I read the book soon afterwards. I found a copy in a box of paperbacks someone had given to my Father. The book is a classic escape story from World War II. It’s a great read and the story starts with a usual day in the POW camp which consists of tea making, cooking and cleaning and exercising by walking a circuit around the camp. The author, real life escapee Eric Williams, tells the reader about the everyday problems of living in a hut full of bored officers looking forward to either red cross parcels, letters from home or escaping. The problems of escaping are many. The soil is soft and sandy meaning that a tunnel would be liable to collapse and the soil cleared from underground is different to the grey topsoil making it difficult to hide from the German guards. The main problem is the distance from the huts to the camp perimeter but the author and a friend hit on the idea of taking a vaulting horse and placing it near to the perimeter fence and having a tunnel dug from there with the prisoners exercised by vaulting over the horse and masking the escape operation. The POW camp, Stalag Luft III was also the same camp where the events depicted in The Great Escape took place.
The film is pretty faithful to the book and stars the usual stalwarts of British films in the 1950’s, actors like Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson. It’s a nicely paced film showing the boredom of camp life and then the idea for the vaulting horse and its preparation and use. Various problems have to be overcome including tunnel cave ins and disposal of the resulting excavated sand but all goes well. The two escapees decide to add another man to their escape team and one night the three emerge from the tunnel into freedom. Of course the escape is not over; two of the men make their way to the Baltic port of Lubeck and manage to escape to neutral Sweden with the help of the Danish resistance by stowing away on a Danish ship. The third escapee also makes his way to freedom separately and all three meet up in neutral Sweden.
On her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming
This book as you probably know is one of the James Bond series of books and is one of the last in the series. As usual, the book is well written and James Bond 007 is on the lookout for Ernst Stavro Blofeld whose fiendish plot was thwarted by Bond in the previous book, Thunderball. In this one Bond is close to resigning but after being given some holiday leave from work, meets a young girl, Tracy, who appears to be suicidal. After saving her from one such attempt Bond is introduced to her father Draco, who is head of a Corsican crime syndicate. Draco gives Bond a lead on Blofeld who appears to be trying to establish that he is in fact a baronet. Anyway, without going on and explaining the plot in detail, the book is an excellent read, one of the best in the Bond series.
The film was notable for being the first in the film franchise without Sean Connery as James Bond. Connery was tired of playing the part and so a search for a new Bond had begun. The new actor chosen was George Lazenby whose only claim to fame at the time was appearing in a TV advertisement for a Big Fry chocolate bar. For me, Lazenby was the perfect Bond. He looked the part, in fact I’ve always thought that he fitted Ian Fleming’s description perfectly. The film is a fast paced thriller and is one of the more serious of the Bond films. Diana Rigg plays Contessa Tracy Di Vincezo who Bond saves from a suicide attempt, just as he does in the book. Tracy’s father Marc Ange Draco who happens to be an underworld boss, gives Bond a tip as to Blofeld’s whereabouts. Bond, masquerading as Sir Hilary Bray, a representative of the College of Arms meets Blofeld in Switzerland on the pretext of confirming Blofeld as a baronet. Bond arrives at the ski resort of Piz Gloria and finds Blofeld is engaged on a new plot against the UK. The film throws in some great fight scenes, car chases and also an exciting ski chase sequence. It was directed by Peter Hunt and is still a favourite today amongst Bond fans. Sadly Lazenby decided not to play Bond again and Sean Connery returned for another outing as 007 in Diamonds are Forever.
This last entry is a little of a cheat really as the Hamish Macbeth series of books were made into a TV series rather than a film but here we go anyway.
Robert Carlyle played the eponymous TV police officer in the BBC series which first aired in 1995. The series is about a local Bobby based in the village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands. Macbeth applies the rule of law in his own way and dispenses his own brand of laid back justice. Although successful at solving numerous crimes Macbeth avoids promotion in order to stay in the village.
Three series of Hamish Macbeth were produced with six episodes each. Although the series was based on the books by MC Beaton, the TV series differs greatly from the books, with new characters devised by the TV producers and various other aspects changed. I enjoyed the series enormously and even once visited Plockton, the Highland village that doubles for Lochdubh on television. MC Beaton, whose real name is Marion Chesney, apparently hated the TV production which I can understand as they changed her work considerably, adding and changing characters. I have to say though, I’ve always liked it.
Death of A Dreamer by MC Beaton
I picked up this copy of one of MC Beaton’s books in a second hand bookshop in Skipton. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a book for me but I soon settled into the story and it bumbles along nicely with a few twists and turns on the way. A lady artist, Effie Gerrard, arrives in the village and develops an obsession with another artist named Jock. Later Effie is found dead. Was it a suicide or was it murder? The police decide it was suicide but Hamish is not so sure and he decides to make further investigations.
In the books Hamish has a dog and a wild cat as pets unlike the TV show where his only pet is ‘Wee Jock’, a highland Westie dog. The book is heavy on dialogue and light on descriptive passages but it was an easy and enjoyable read and I liked it immensely. The only annoying thing was that after finishing the book, the first chapter of the next book had been added to tempt the reader I suppose into buying that one. I read that and found myself wanting the next book in the series so it might be time to begin scouring the bookshops of St Annes for more books in the series.