By John H. Foote
The first time I saw Midnight Express (1978) I was astounded by the story, the direction, the exquisite performances of the cast, that brooding electronic score and the production design. For an 18-year old sitting in the wonderful old University Theatre on a Saturday afternoon, happily on my own, this was an incredible experience. The film was a sensation when it premiered at Cannes, again at the pre-Tiff Festival of Festivals and finally upon release in North America. Two weeks after seeing the film for the first time, I saw it again, and again admired the film, but also had growing concerns.
By the second screening I had read the book upon which the film was based and I was struck by the changes in the film which were done to create drama, which I understand, but I worried people would think the film was fact. So, would audiences emerge the theatre believing Billy Hayes murdered a guard who was about to rape him? Self defense for sure, but what about the treacherous Rifki, who has his tongue bitten out by a wild Hayes?
Though it did not lessen the impact of the film, it did linger on my mind, and still does.
Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is drenched in sweat the first scene in the film. He is in the washroom of the airport in Turkey about to board a plane in 1970. Taped to his body are bricks of Hashish, which is of course drug smuggling. Hayes shoos his girlfriend on ahead of him as he moves through the check, done by soldiers who I think would have suspected a sweat drenched young man wearing sunglasses and chewing gum like he had never had a piece.
But he gets through.
That is until he is about to board the plane, which is surrounded by soldiers patting down all those boarding. Billy does not have a chance, they feel the drugs, point their weapons at him and he is arrested on the spot.
Like a deer in the headlights, Billy is searched, stripped and left standing naked as they go through his belongings. A representative from the US Embassy comes to speak with him to discuss the severity of his crime, and Billy foolishly runs only to be caught at gunpoint.
TURKISH PRISON HELL
Billy is sentenced to five years in what amounts to a kangaroo court and sent to prison. The Turkish prison where he will spend his sentence is like a Gothic horror show, a city where the prisoners fend for themselves and everyone, guards included, are corrupt. His first night he slips out of his cell (doors are not locked) and grabs a blanket because he is cold, but his offence is reported by the snitch Rifki and Billy is severely beaten by Amidou, the sadistic head of the guards. He meets Jimmy (Randy Quaid) a ferocious young man filled with rage, and Max (John Hurt) a heroin addict who dreams of escape.
The prison is squalor, filthy, though drugs are plentiful, alcohol can be got and Billy seems to have a steady supply of cash from his father. But danger lurks everywhere because he is an American. Theft, savage beatings, betrayals, rape is rampant, so he does his best to avoid getting in trouble.
As his sentence draws to a close, he is called before the Turkish court and retried, where his sentence is commuted to life. It seems the government wishes to make an example of Billy. He rages at the judge, calling the Turkish people “pigs”, deeply insulting them. The American officials appear useless in the case as all countries were clamping down on smuggling.
Told by Max to try and catch the “midnight express” out, he begins plotting to escape. A botched escape attempt organized by Jimmy sees Jimmy beaten so badly he loses a testicle, and eventually Max becomes the target of Rifki’s treachery, leading Billy to go insane and bite the tongue out of the snitch. Beaten again, both Billy and Max end up in the psychiatric end of the prison, a sort of living hell where no one is treated, just left to fall deeper into their madness and rot until they die.
When his girlfriend comes to visit him, Billy’s condition terrifies her as he masturbates through the glass. In tears she flees, but not before giving Billy an album filled with money. Attempting to bribe to get out, Amidou takes him to a room to sodomize him, but Billy pushes him backwards into a coat hook on the wall which pierces his brain. Grabbing guards clothing, Billy keeps his head down and makes his way out of the prison, on to freedom.
The conclusion of the film uses stills to show him reuniting with his family, ending with an explanation thousands of Americans remain unjustly prisoner around the globe.
CRITICS, AWARDS, LEGACY
Critics had admiration for some aspects of the film, especially the look, the direction of rising British filmmaker Alan Parker and the performances of John Hurt, Randy Quaid and newcomer Brad Davis as Billy. There were some criticisms of the portrayal of the Turkish people, portrayed mostly as corrupt, sweaty sodomites with no decency, and the film’s gruesome violence. However no one could deny the intensity of the film, or the obviously grim experience in the dreadful Turkish prison. The film was an immediate sensation and shocked Hollywood, winning Golden Globes for Best Film (Drama) and Best Screenplay (for Oliver Stone). Parker was a DGA nominee and then the film racked up six Academy Award nominations including Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (John Hurt), Best Screenplay and Best Score. Left out surprisingly was lead actor Brad Davis, so powerful, and supporting actor Randy Quaid. On Oscar night Oliver Stone again won for his adaptation and the film won Best Score.
The legacy of the film has not been one to admire. The manner in which Stone portrayed in his script the Turkish people seems grossly unfair, and much about the film feels dated. Even Brad Davis feels awkward at times, his performance forced, not capturing the essence of truth Hurt or Quaid managed. Still it remains a very powerful film, beautifully shot in depicting a true living hell.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.