British director Alan Parker’s 1978 film, “Midnight Express,” based upon a non-fiction book, by William Hayes and William Hoffer, was considered somewhat controversial upon its release, but looking back on it, over three decades later, one has to wonder what all the controversy was about? Oh my, it portrayed the fact that life in a Third World prison was brutal, disgusting, and degrading? It showed that the government of Turkey (then, as now) is not really a democracy, with a fair judicial system? Hell, OUR nation lacks a truly fair judicial system; again, this is controversial? Not to those of us on Planet Earth. Having said that, this is not a bad film, and is well in line with many of the good, solid- but not great- films in Parker’s canon, like “Bugsy Malone,” “Angel Heart,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Evita,” and “Angela’s Ashes.”
The film starts off with the 1970 arrest of American tourist, William ‘Billy’ Hayes (Brad Davis, who looks like a cross between Matt Damon and Brad Pitt), at an airport, after he has attempted to smuggle out two kilograms of hashish. His girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle), makes it on the plane, but he does not. After he is met by an American (Bo Hopkins) who may or may not work for the American consulate, he stupidly tries to escape, after pretending to help them bust the drug dealer, and is captured by the Turkish police. Hayes is sentenced to over four years in prison. He there meets other prisoners, some foreign, and settles in to serve out his sentence, eventually becoming homosexually involved with a Swedish prisoner named Erich (Norbert Weisser). Then, with just 53 days left before he is to be paroled, the Turkish authorities decide to make an example of him, and extend his term to thirty years. This pushes him over the edge, and he explodes in court, and then tries to escape, through an old catacomb system under the prison. He fails, and two of his pals, a Brit named Max (John Hurt) and Jimmy Booth (Randy Quaid), are betrayed by a liar and con man named Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli, also in the infamously bad Salo, or 120 Days Of Sodom), who rats them out to the prison guards.
Hayes goes wild, attacks Rifki, and gouges his eyes out, then bites out his tongue. He is then sent to the criminally insane ward. Susan comes to visit him, and there is a scene where she presses her breasts up against a glass pane while Hayes pretends to suck them. Meanwhile, she has brought him money to bribe the guards. He attempts to bribe the head guard, to take him to the sanatorium, but instead he attempts to anally rape Hayes. He fights back, accidentally kills the guard, takes his uniform, and escapes out the door. The film ends with him walking down a street, and then seeing black and white photos of his being reunited with his family, after escaping to Greece, in 1975.
The film won Academy Awards for Best Original Music Score, for Giorgio Moroder, and Best Adapted Screenplay, for Oliver Stone, although the screenplay was later vilified for depicting all Turks as bad people. Yet, watching the film, this is clearly not true, as many of the Turkish prisoners are favorably portrayed, while most of the others are not shown in a poor nor good light. In short, most of the attacks against the film as promoting bigotry are all wet, just a bunch of preening nonsense. Yes, the film does take liberties from the real tale- such as making Hayes’ escape much simpler and violent than it really was, and exaggerating some other aspects of the film; but, overall, is it any more stereotyping than any other prison film- from the Warner Brothers films of the 1930s through the PC sugared “The Shawshank Redemption?” In a word- no. And, in its more realistic portrayal of prison life, it’s far beyond anything Shawshank can provide. This does not mean that it would not have been a better film had they stuck more to reality and lessened the melodrama, but it is a solid, prosaic film- there is nothing in it that hints at greatness, but it is still worlds better than most of what passes for dramatic cinema these days. The cinematography, by Michael Seresin, is solid, but nothing spectacular- although Malta is a good stand-in for Turkey, and Moroder’s soundtrack is, at times, intriguing. The acting is also good, at times, but the 2 hour film could have lost 20-30 minutes with little being lost. Many of the scenes of prison brutality just get repetitive.
The Columbia Pictures DVD, a 30th Anniversary Edition, has a good, solid audio commentary by Parker. He is talkative and informative, but, a bit on the perfunctory side. Many of his anecdotes are recapitulated in the other features, so little knew is learnt. The most interesting tidbit gleaned is the fact that few of the non-English speaking actors spoke Turkish. They ususally spoke in their native tongues, but non-Turkic audiences had no clue. In a similar vein, Parker made the wise choice to not subtitle the film, which empathetically places the viewer in the same bewildered position as Hayes is in. It’s an excellent touch. This DVD, however, could have benefited from a film and/or Turkish historian’s perspective on the film, the nation of Turkey, and the effects the film had. There are three making of featurettes: “The Producer,” “The Production,” and “The Finished Film,” as well as a photo gallery. There is also an insert booklet that has more photos and an essay on the film by Parker, which again repeats much of what he has iterated in the featurette and commentary.
Overall, “Midnight Express“ is a good film and a worthy entry in the prison film genre, but it breaks no new ground, nor does it probe any more deeply into the human condition than your typical thriller might. And, whatever controversy it engendered at its release has blown aside, as the truth about the deplorable conditions of most prisons, worldwide, have become well known to the masses in the West. Rather than whine about perceived slights, the Turkish government should have made sure to improve its penal and justice systems. Regardless of that, the film stands on its own. Expect just a good thriller, and you won’t be disappointed. Any more expectations placed on the film and any resultant letdown is squarely on you. It’s a lesson Billy Hayes learnt the hard way. Watch “Midnight Express“ and take it easy.