Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen), a safecracker nicknamed "Papillon" because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest, is wrongly convicted of murdering a pimp. In 1933 he is sentenced to life imprisonment within the penal system in French Guiana. En route, he meets a fellow convict, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a forger and embezzler who is convinced that his wife will secure his release. Papillon offers to protect Dega if he will underwrite the former's escape once they reach French Guiana. Enduring the horrors of life in a jungle labor camp, the two eventually develop a friendship.