By John H. Foote
In 1978 the Festival of Festivals in downtown Toronto, struggling to find its identity as a festival, landed the film that would put the upstart fest on the map, Midnight Express. Directed by Alan Parker, adapted to the screen from the book by Oliver Stone, the film, a prison drama, stormed the festival, stunning audiences into silence with its raw, visceral power.
Based on the true story of Billy Hayes, a 20-year old American arrested before getting on a plane in Turkey with a large amount of Hashish strapped to his body. Charged with smuggling narcotics, Hayes was made an example of and initially sentenced to five years but shortly before his sentence was served it was commuted to life. The film would open the world’s eyes to the horrific conditions and treatment imprisoned Americans were subject too. Yes, they had knowingly committed a crime, but did that entail their basic human rights were taken from them? That was precisely what happened to Billy Hayes.
Life in a Turkish prison was radically different from a prison in America or Canada, survival was an everyday battle. Living in filthy conditions where disease ran rampant, where rape was an everyday occurrence, where the guards routinely beat the prisoners and where corruption was a way of life, death might have been more welcome. The prisoners were thrown into the population of thieves, rapists and murderers and expected to find their own way.
Billy (Brad Davis) was initially and rightfully terrified. Severely beaten for leaving his cell to get a blanket, he learns quickly that to make trouble was to risk being beaten to death. He meets American and British prisoners in the jail, the hot-tempered Jimmy (Randy Quaid) and gentle heroin addict Max (John Hurt) both who coach Billy in the ways of the prison, who to stay away from, and how to keep a low profile. It is Max who introduces to Billy the idea of catching the midnight express, defined as escape. But how? The prison is not well guarded but there are ears everywhere, betrayal everywhere for gain, and those who use information as sport.
What Billy endures for four years in unspeakable, only to have his sentenced extended to life as his release date approaches. Enraged, broken, he calls the Turks a nation of pigs.
And then he starts to listen to Jimmy and his plans to escape through the cavernous catacombs beneath the ancient prison. But the treacherous Rifki finds out and exposes Jimmy who is taken away and never seen again. Defeated, Billy slips into madness. He kills Rifki, biting out his tongue, spitting it across the room before being transferred to the unit for the insane. Only after a visit from his girlfriend does Billy begin to come back, and attempts to bribe the vile, brutal head guard. When this brute of a man drops his pants preparing to rape Billy, the smaller man attacks the guard, slamming him into a coat anger on a wall which pierces his brain, killing him instantly.
From here Billy formulates his plan to escape.
To begin the portrayal of the Turkish people is cruel and exploitative, in its portrayal the viewer must remember neither Parker or Stone are commenting on the nation as a whole. They are commenting on the prisoners and guards within a prison well known for its violence, the guards known to be as corrupt as they were violent. Every attempt is made to make the viewer feel sympathy for Billy, a young, foolish American seeing the world, trying to bring home some hash, however illegal. A great deal of credit must go to Brad Davis, an unknown who exploded to fame in this film. Davis brilliantly allows the viewer to feel and see every happening through his eyes. He gives a fine performance, diving under the skin of Hayes and fleshing him out. Davis is also a strong physical actor, his presence felt even in scenes where he is silent. There is a mesmerizing sequence between he and his Swedish friend as they serve out their time with rituals: walking, exercise, yoga, chanting. In a cloudy steam bath, the Swede kisses Billy, making clear his want for the relationship to become sexual, but gently, in friendship Billy pushes him away. Their friendship endures until the heartbreaking day the Swede is released, leaving Billy with no one but his thoughts. Davis handles these sequences with a quiet authority, bringing greater weight to Billy.
John Hurt is superb as drug addicted Max, who sees the world through a heroin induced nightmare. His breaking point comes when his cat is killed and Rifki betrays him, yet again. His genuine terror at what awaits him is shattering.
Randy Quaid is a furious burst of unbridled energy as the ferocious Jimmy, in for a petty crime, stealing candlesticks from a Mosque. Always scheming to get out, his mind whirring into overdrive, he is wrapped far too tight for a prison such as this. It was thrilling to see Quaid in such a brash role as his previous film roles saw him as meek, gentle giants. Not here. Watch his eyes, always at work, always thinking. Prison for a man such as this was a death sentence as the walls closed in, taking the life out of him.
The prison is a character on its own, like a step back in time into something medieval and undeveloped by the passing of time. We feel the walls closing in on us, one cannot imagine how the characters felt.
Though centuries old, the prison remains a formidable building.
Two aspects of this powerful film are unforgettable. This is not meant to undermine the performances, not at all, merely to suggest how the score and cinematography elevate the film to art.
Director Alan Parker creates a grim, unforgiving life within the prison, a world no one would wish to be trapped within. He wisely allowed his actors to shine in telling the story, yet two other aspects burn bright in making the film an extraordinary experience. Parker made other films, Shoot the Moon (1982) the finest of his career, a second Oscar nomination would come with Mississippi Burning (1988) and he would helm the long-awaited musical adaptation of Evita (1996), ironically stepping in when Oliver Stone withdrew. By then Stone was a two-time Academy Award winning Best Director, widely admired and respected.
Morodor’s moody synthesized score is brilliant beginning like a heartbeat and exploding into frantic energy through the film. Second is the brilliant cinematography which captures, perfectly, the horrors of this bleak, virtually doomed life these poor souls are in.
Midnight Express was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor. It would win two – for the superb score by Moroder and Oliver Stone’s screenplay, which did indeed take liberties with the book, the truth. While film critics praised the film, there were dissenters who attacked Stone for his portrayal of the Turkish people, a point I agree with. That did not stop the film from becoming a solid hit with both audiences and critics.
A word about Brad Davis. Many, me included, predicted major stardom for the actor after his superb performance in this film, for which he should have been an Oscar nominee for Best Actor. Davis never again reached such heights, ending up in small indie films such as Rosalie Goes Shopping (1985). He died of AIDS very young, a sad end to a young man who exploded onto the forefront of world cinema. At one point after Midnight Express debuted he was locked in to portray fifties icon Montgomery Clift, but the financing fell apart before they could make the film.
For Midnight Express, he remains immortal.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”