Today there was an article in Le Parisien (my favorite newspaper!) about an old man who claims to be the real Papillon, inspiring the movie with Steve McQueen. I was a fan of the book, genre Escape From Devil's Island, so here goes! A real-life story that is like one from the movies.
The former convict who says he was Papillon
His hands gripping his wheelchair, Charles Brunier does not really understand why he is dressed up to come out of his room, yesterday morning, at the nursing home Orpa-Val-de-France in Domont (Val-d'Oise). This ex-con has been in peaceful retirement here for the past 12 years. Solitary, the old man of 104 has no more family and never receives any visitors. He affirms that he is the man who inspired Henri Charrière, author of the celebrated Papillon, who, he says, stole his identity. Yesterday, Léon Bertrand, the Minister of Tourism, came to see him. The minister wanted to bring up the memory of his grandfather, Bertrand Lucien, who was a convict in the prison of Cayenne in French Guyana. "Perhaps he knew him," says Léon Bertrand.
Charles Brunier was behind bars for fifteen years in the Cayenne prison, which closed its doors in 1953 after having taken in almost 70,000 prisoners in a hundred years. He does not remember the minister's grandfather. However, he has not forgotten the jails of Saint-Laurent-de-Maroni, the violent behavior of the prison guards, "and especially the mosquitoes." There he became acquainted with Henri Charrière, who became famous under the name of Papillon [butterfly], the title of his autobiographical bestseller of 1969.
But Charles Brunier, his old companion from prison, claims and has always claimed that all Charrière did was take Brunier's own story as his inspiration for the book. Brunier's story is rich in comebacks. Enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17, he succeeded, with some other men, in rescuing an encircled unit during the campaign in Syria. On that occasion he saved the life of a lieutenant before being wounded himself, deeds which earned him the Croix de Guerre. A few years later, he stumbled. In Troyes (Aube), after meeting a prostitute who proposed to work for him, he stabbed and wounded the girl's pimp, a certain Chopette, during a fight in a bar called the Mauvais Garçons [the Bad Boys]. Condemned to forced labor for life for the murder of an old lady in 1923, he was sent to the prison colony.
A tattoo on his shoulder
Charles Brunier, who called himself "Johnny King" in the prison colony, managed to escape three times. During the Second World War he enlisted as a fighter pilot in Mexico, where he had taken refuge after his second prison escape. For two years he hunted German submarines in the Caribbean, before continuing the war in Africa. After being decorated a second time in Brazzaville, in the Congo, by General De Gaulle in person, Charles Brunier took part in the Allied invasion of Italy. He finished the war as an adjutant-chef [roughly equivalent to a U.S. sergeant major or British warrant officer]. This did not keep him from being sent back to the prison colony in Guyana. It was not until June 12th, 1948, that the President of the Pardon Commission gave him a complete pardon "because of his skilled conduct during the course of the hostilities."
On his return to France, Charles Brunier settled in Domont, where he lived peacefully among neighbors who knew nothing of his past. During his free time, the former Convict 47355 built model ships, which he still keeps safe in his room at the nursing home. In spite of his 104 years, Charles still has a bright eye and can express himself, "but only when he feels like it," says the nursing-home staff. Yesterday, he did not feel much like it. He found it "incredible" that the grandson of a convict could be a minister-- he, without a family, who fought for many years in vain to clear his name, "to give an honest name" to the woman he loved. But he did not say a word about his own history.
The story of Henri Charrière, who died in 1973 at the age of 67, has been subject to controversy for a long time. In his book Papillon épinglé [Butterfly pinned down] (published in 1970 by Presses de la Cité), Gérard de Villiers, the creator of SAS [a James-Bond-style detective-novel hero], noted anomalies. "Not everything is false, but most of the adventures happened to others, not to Papillon, and sometimes years earlier," he said. These accusations were confirmed by a former prison guard. In a 24-page report addressed to the Ministry of Justice in December 1969, he said, "On can affirm that Charrière credited himself with adventures he imagined or which happened to other people." Coincidence or not, Charles Brunier has many tattoos on his body, among them a butterfly, and his left index finger is atrophied. Two distinctive marks of the most famous of convicts.
--by Eric Delporte and Olivier Sureau
--May 31 1901. Charles Armand Brunier born in Paris, 16th arrondissement [tiens tiens!]
--1918. Enlisted in the Navy, he is decorated with the Croix de Guerre for military deeds in Syria.
--July 17, 1923. Condemned to forced labor for life for murder, grand theft, blows and wounds. He is sent to the prison colony in Guyana.
--1925. First attempted escape. He tries again in 1926, then in 1928. With four other convicts, on a tiny boat, he reaches the coast of Venezuela. He is recaptured in Bogotá, Colombia, and sent to the Îles du Salut [Health Islands!], from which he tries to escape in 1936.
--June 18, 1940. He listens to the appeal of General De Gaulle while in a Mexican tavern, where he had found refuge after a new escape in 1939 aboard a canoe. He enlists in a commando unit and becomes a fighter pilot.
--1942-1945. His conduct during the African campaign (Chad, Senegal, Mauritania...) earns him the honor of being decorated by General De Gaulle. Still being sought as an escaped convict, he is sent back to the prison colony.
--June 12, 1948. The Pardons Committee grants a pardon to Charles Brunier "because of his skillful conduct during the course of the hostilities."
--1969. Publication of the book Papillon, written by an ex-convict, Henri Charrière. The book sells 250,000 copies.
--1973. The film Papillon comes out, starring Steve McQueen. New triumph.
--December 1993. Charles Brunier enters the nursing home Orpa-Val-de-France, in Domont.