Midnight Express (1978) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence, sexuality, nudity and drug references
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Brad Davis, John Hurt, Randy Quaid, Norbert Weisser, Mike Kellin, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins, Paolo Bonacelli, Paul Smith, Franco Diogene
Director: Alan Parker
Screenplay: Oliver Stone (based on the book by William Hayes and William Hoffer)
Review published August 28, 2005
Based, some say fairly loosely, on a true story as detailed in the book of the same name, Midnight Express is still an engaging and engrossing tale of survival amid trying circumstances of one American stuck in a brutal Turkish prison, trying desperately to find his way home again. The young man is Billy Hayes (Davis, Sybil), who in 1970, is detained at Istanbul Airport after he is found trying to smuggle a couple of kilos of hashish strapped to his abdomen. He is sent to prison where he suffers some instances of heavy abuse at the hands of the warders, but there really is no recourse other than through the efforts of his father and some of the local dignitaries. His sentence is reduced to three years, but these aren't just any three years. Every day is a struggle to keep his nose clean and not prolong his sentence any more than he has to, which isn't easy when there is anarchy on the grounds and prison guards that take their own liberties whenever they feel like it. When the higher court changes his sentence to thirty years due to an effort to make an example out of Hayes, he plans his escape, but the penalty is severe should he be caught.
Nominated for six Academy Awards, and winning two for the score by Georgio Moroder (Superman III, Scarface) and the screenplay by Oliver Stone (Conan the Barbarian, Platoon), Midnight Express is a harrowing tale that shows how disheartening prison life can be, especially for those in foreign lands without much in the way of rights or ways to communicate with others. The film did meet with some controversy, particularly in the unflattering light given to the Turks and their system of criminal justice, although even with Stone's twisting of the events to make for a more engaging narrative, it's hard not to think that Hayes didn't make life harder for himself by constantly defying authority, whether through the initial drug smuggling attempt, the escape from the police, the disregard for the prison guard authority, the insults spewed during his court hearing, in his plans for a prison break, and even murder. Regardless, if you believe the harsh treatment shown in the film, it does call into question whether or not the policies regarding those that do break the law may be too stringent, even on an international level.
Alan Parker's (The Life of David Gale, Pink Floyd: The Wall) direction is terrific, perfectly encapsulating the feel of the Turkish streets, the tension of prison life, the despair of people without reason to hope for freedom, and the madness that is caused by severe antagonism at the hands of people with the power to hurt. The sadomasochistic nature of prison life, mixed with the rampant sexuality, makes the whole story feel like an excursion into perversion rather than in rehabilitation, and consequently, this isn't a movie for people that aren't ready for a bitter pill of violence and sadism for the duration. Many films since have topped Midnight Express in the displays of these kinds of acts, but the realistic nature of the events makes it more effective than works of sensationalistic fiction.
In terms of getting the real scoop of the trials and tribulations of Billy Hayes in Turkey, it would probably be better to read the autobiographical account, as Stone has changes so much for the film version. However, there's no denying that this is still filmmaking of a very high order, paced well, with sharp dialogue and solid acting all around. A dark, disturbing motion picture that will have you questioning whether or not penal systems truly make for better citizens or if they merely turn men into monsters and madmen.
©2005 Vince Leo