Alan Parker’s Midnight Express is a powerful movie based on the real-life experiences of Billy Hayes and his brutal stay at a Turkish prison in the early 1970’s. This film paints a portrait on how awful life in prison can be especially as a foreigner. It doesn’t help that the Turkish guards are nasty brutes reveling in the fact that they can do whatever they want to their prisoners. Especially the head guard. Wow, what a sadistic man! I’ll tell you straight up that this film can be hard to watch sometimes because of the brutality of the prison scenes. They are very violent and the head guard’s favorite punishment is painfully beating the soles of the feet. This film is also a portrait on the corruption of the Turkish political and criminal system (Hayes was sentenced to over 30 years for attempting to smuggle hashish out of the country just to set an example). This film is also a wonderful portrait on the descent from normality to madness. Hayes is seen at first as a man fighting to be free, but we later see him as a shadow of himself, high on opium, with little chance of seeing the outside world again. There are many issues at play regarding themes, and Alan Parker does a magnificent job making them relevant. This could have been a simple prison escape movie, but this film was more than that by tackling very important themes relevant to the time period.
One thing that interested me is how the Turks are portrayed in the movie. It did not bother me as it bothered many others, but all Turkish people are viewed as corrupt. Whether they are the prison guards, lawyers, judges, prisoners, or just citizens-all of them are viewed as bad people. In reality, many Turks are great people. Maybe it was the time period of the film’s release, but it was clear that Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone were either judgmental or ignorant. It’s a sad fact that I did not notice until a while after the viewing of this film but regardless, my viewpoints of the film do not change.
Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is an American college student in Turkey on vacation. But on October 6th, 1970, he is arrested for trying to smuggle hashish out of the country. He is originally given a light sentence, but the Turkish courts changed the sentence to over thirty years to make an example out of him. The prison environment is awful thanks to the sadistic torture from head guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith.) For Hayes, there are only two options for release. He can wait for help from his family and friends back home and the American government or he can take the “Midnight Express” which stands for escaping the prison.
The performances are brilliant to say the least. The acting is the main reason why the film is so powerful. Brad Davis does very well as Billy Hayes. His performance gave me the chills because it showed what it was like to be dehumanized. He did end up saying some very powerful courtroom speeches before he got sent away to prison. Paul L. Smith absolutely crushes it as Hamidou. He is a brutal man, and Smith does a good job convincing us so. There are two other performances worthy of a mention. John Hurt as a British prisoner named Max who is the drug supplier and Randy Quaid as the free-spirited American prisoner named Jimmy Booth bent on escape. Hurt’s supporting turn stuck with me most of all. There is a disturbing scene where his cat is hung and killed by one of the Turkish prisoners and Hurt’s pain made his performance resounding and realistic. In fact, he was nominated for an Oscar because his performance was so good.
Controversies aside, Oliver Stone’s script and Alan Parker’s direction stood out to me. Stone would eventually become a great director himself, but he really developed himself as a screenwriter. Stone always had a passion for politics, so it’s no surprise he would tackle the subject of global justice corruption. He really captured the essence of prison life from the view of an outsider (in which Hayes was). Stone also sympathizes with Hayes. Hayes is known to be not too nice of a guy, but it did not really seem like it here. Alan Parker has a keen eye for politics as well. Not just this movie, but you’ll see in future movies. Parker’s style is to get you hooked right away, and boy did he do that here. The opening scene has Davis walking through the Turkish airport with his girlfriend……and drugs taped to his body. The sweat dripping down his face, the intimidating guards, what a way to open the movie!
I really, really liked Midnight Express. Nominated for six Oscars and winning two of them (for Stone’s screenplay and the wonderful score by Giorgio Moroder), Hollywood also really liked the movie. It did not come without its controversies, but this film really ended up being a tense watch from beginning to end. SPOILERS!!! For those who know the story, Hayes did manage to escape prison. But it was a pain-staking process for him. Life in Turkish prison is harsh and the film is very successful is showing that thanks to the brutal torture techniques from Hamidou. This story is about morality, violence, and sadism…..and yes you may be terrified.
My Grade: A