This movie was way beyond Steve McQueen’s pay grade. He had always been good in action movies, in westerns, in thrillers like Bullitt. A few times he had tried comedy, like Soldier in the Rain, and The Reivers, and regular drama as in Baby the Rain Must Fall, but this one was completely different. And he hit it out of the park. I really think he should have been at least nominated for an Oscar, but he wasn’t.
It is based on the autobiographical book by Henri Charrière, and some of it is actually true. Charrière’s story has been questioned in many parts, and conclusively debunked in others, but the bones of the story really happened. He was sent to the living hell on Earth known as Devil’s Island, actually a collection of prison labor camps of various degrees of brutality. He attempted escape twice, was captured. For the first offense he was sentenced to two year solitary confinement. And they meant solitary. No one was allowed to speak. Punishment for any infraction meant that light was blocked off from your cell and you were in almost total darkness. As further punishment for refusing to betray his friend (Dustin Hoffman) who had been smuggling him coconuts, his already starvation rations were cut in half. He survived, just barely, by eating the abundant giant cockroaches.
The second time he escaped he was free for a little longer, but eventually betrayed (by a nun, who robbed him!) and spent five years in solitary. Finally he was sent to the actual Devil’s Island, the end of the road. It was escape-proof, they all said, but it was from here he finally made it work, floating away on a raft of coconut shells barely bigger than he was.
Whether or not any of this actually happened to Henri seems to me to be beside the point. All of it happened to someone, in fact to many men. Prisoners died like flies or went mad with the solitary confinement. Even the outside, “easy” jobs could kill you. Most sentences were for life, with a certain number of years at hard labor and then permanent exile in a horrible place to live. This movie chronicles the brutality and is heightened by the outstanding performances by the two leads. McQueen, in particular, is harrowing during the long sequence in solitary, as he slowly deteriorates into a shadow of his former self.
Couldn’t end this review without mentioning that there was a small part for my dear departed friend, Peter Brocco. He plays the camp doctor. His role consists of standing at the head of a long line of prisoners, looking into their mouths and thumping them on the chest, and saying “Next.” Clearly, if a prisoner came up to him bleeding from the ears and eyes and mouth, missing an arm or a leg, he would thump him on the chest and say “Next.”