| Steve McQueen (left) and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon
Paris, June 27: A 104-year-old convicted killer has reopened the debate over Papillon, the inmate of a notorious French prison in the Caribbean, by claiming that he was the real model for the character.
The book of the same name vividly described the wretched existence of criminals exiled to the Devil’s Island colony in Cayenne, the daring escapes of its hero and the exotic life he led as a fugitive.
Published in 1969, Henri Charri're’s supposed autobiography sold millions and was turned into a Hollywood film classic, Papillon, starring Steve McQueen as the author and Dustin Hoffman as a fellow-escaper.
But its veracity is being challenged by Charles Brunier, an alert centenarian who, in addition to having been detained with Charri're, was twice decorated as a war hero.
Brunier’s claims have prompted French newspapers to speculate the real Papillon may be an old lag seeing out his days in a home for the elderly near Paris.
Charri're, who died in 1973, maintained that his story was accurate give or take lapses of memory.
But writers have cast doubt on his account.
A French justice ministry report said the story included episodes that were imagined or involved others and it “should be divided by at least 10 to get near the truth”.
At his old people’s home at Domont in the Val d’Oise, about 12 miles from the French capital, Brunier insists that Charri're borrowed liberally from his own experiences to embellish the novel.
Isabelle Mesureur-Cadenel, the director of the home, said: “When Mr Brunier recounts his memories, he says he was detained with Henri Charri're and is adamant that Charri're stole his story.”
She said: “Under French law, he cannot vote or get married. He was freed as a war hero but he never succeeded in having his civic rights restored.
“He seems happy and alert for a man of his age,” she added.