Director: Alan Parker
Production: Casablanca Film Works, for Columbia; Eastmancolor, 35mm; running time: 123 minutes.
Producers: David Puttnam, Alan Marshall; screenplay: Oliver Stone, based on the novel by Billy Hayes and William Hoffner; photography: Michael Seresin; editor: Gerry Hambling; assistant directors: Ray Corbett, David Wimbury, Kieron Phipps; production design: Geoffrey Kirkland; art director: Evan Hercules; music: Giorgio Moroder; sound editor: Rusty Coppleman; sound recording: Clive Winter; costumes: Milena Canonero.
Cast: Brad Davis (Billy Hayes); Randy Quaid (Jimmy Booth); John Hurt (Max); Irene Miracle (Susan); Bo Hopkins (Tex); Paolio Bonaccelli (Rifki); Paul Smith (Hamidou); Norbert Weisser (Erich); Mike Kellin (Mr. Hayes).
Awards: Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Score, 1978.
Hayes, Billy and William Hoffer, Midnight Express, New York, 1977.
Hacker, Jonathan, and David Price, Take 10—Contemporary BritishDirectors, Oxford 1991.
Variety (New York), 24 May 1978.
Gourdon, G., Cinématographe (Paris), June 1978.
Pym, J., Monthly Film Bulletin (London), July 1978.
Maupin, F., Image et Son (Paris), September 1978.
Gastellier, F., Jeune Cinéma (Paris), October 1978.
Ansen, David, "Turkey Hash," in Newsweek (New York), 16 October 1978.
Schickel, Richard, "Ugly Trips," in Time (New York), 16 October 1978.
Magny, J., Cinéma (Paris), November 1978.
Nordlinger, N., "The Making of Midnight Express," in FilmmakersMonthly (London), November 1978.
Hodenfield, Chris and Angela Gavdioso, "The Man Who Got Away," in Rolling Stone (New York), 30 November 1978.
Biskind, P., Cineaste (New York), Winter 1978–79.
Beaulieu, J., Séquences (Montreal), January 1979.
"Alan Parker: Director of Midnight Express and Angel Heart," an interview, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1988.
"Michael Apted and Alan Parker," an interview, in American Film, vol. 15, no. 12, September 1990.
Basutcu, M., "The Power and the Danger of the Image," in Cinemaya (New Delhi), no. 17/18, Autumn/Winter 1992/1993.
"Parker, Alan," in Current Biography, vol. 55, no. 3, March 1994.
* * *
British director Alan Parker told American Film in 1988, "It's not my job to make you comfortable in the cinema." He was referring to several films in his body of work like Shoot the Moon and Birdy, but none was more uncomfortable and disturbing than Midnight Express (1978), a film based on the real-life story of Billy Hayes, a 23-year-old American who spent five long, agonizing years in a Turkish prison for attempting to smuggle two kilos of hashish on his way home to the USA in 1970.
Midnight Express could have been a garden variety prison picture, except for several interesting plot twists—not all factual—that place it above most films in the genre. First, there was the painful revelation that Americans, ignorant of justice systems abroad, can find themselves in trouble, with the US Government and/or its representatives often times powerless to help. As the real-life Hayes toured the college lecture circuit, according to Rolling Stone, he "found the same stunning ignorance of international law among college students all over." He confessed, "I was an idiot, and there are more just like me who got the brunt of it. The rich, powerful heroin dealers never got caught. Once I got through customs I thought, 'You clever son of a bitch, you really did it."' But he didn't.
Secondly, there was the hellish nature of Sagmalcilar, the Turkish prison itself, a damp, decaying, rat-infested medieval dungeon where beatings and torture were routine for even the slightest infractions. Parker's portrayal of the turkish people and the prison system drew harsh criticism, causing the director to lament years later, "Yes. . . there wasn't a pleasant Turk in it. Looking back, I think that I was possibly politically naïve in that respect. I was so concentrated, so determined to make a film about what I thought was an unjust, unfair prison system—which just happened to be in Turkey." Hayes, however, was less sympathetic to the outcries: "If they don't like it, they should do something about the system, not the film. You are not seeing the Turkish people, you're seeing the lowest stratum of society, it's prisons. It's like seeing Short Eyes and saying it's a brutal picture of American life."
Thirdly, there was the injustice of Billy's sentence. Originally given four years, his sentence was appealed by the prosecutor to a higher court in Ankara in order to make him a political example, since President Nixon had been putting pressure on the Turkish government to curb poppy production by some 200,000 Turkish farmers. The result was that Billy's sentence was changed to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole in 30 years.
Finally, there was the revelation of Hayes' homosexual relationship with a Swedish inmate, prompting reviewer Richard Shickel of Newsweek to remark, "From the first gorgeously modeled shot of Billy stripped before his captors to the hazy sequence of him and a friend doing yoga exercises behind bars (so reminiscent of the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love), to the final farewell kiss Billy bestows on yet another male before his escape, we are in the possession of perverse romanticism, or should one say romantic perversity?"
Much of the criticism surrounding the actual versus fictional events of Midnight Express can be traced to the often problematic adaptation of novels into film, as Chris Hodenfield of Rolling Stone noted, "Hayes' book is about struggle. The movie focuses on decay." Newcomer Oliver Stone (who would go on to become one of the more controversial directors of the 1980s with such films as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Natural Born Killers) penned the adaptation of Midnight Express, taking a number of liberties with the novel apparently for the purpose of enhancing the film's violent assault on the senses, while at the same time turning the film into a "statement film" on human rights abuses abroad: (1) In real life, Billy slipped into the airport quite confidently, but the movie depicts him as sweating profusely as he passes nervously through customs and just before the two kilos of hashish taped to his body are found by the Turkish military looking for weapons or bombs carried by would-be hijackers; (2) the fictitious speech Billy delivers to the Turkish court was denounced by reviewer David Ansen of Newsweek when he wrote, "Especially disturbing is the film's eagerness to arouse the worst xenophobic fantasies: scriptwriter Oliver Stone even invents an impassioned speech in which Billy denounces the Turks as pigs"; (3) Billy never murdered anyone in prison, much less his prison keeper, the brutal Hamidou, to escape to freedom; the man was actually gunned down in a café by a former Turkish inmate at Sagmalcilar prison; (4) the Billy Hayes that actor Brad Davis portrays in the film is the total opposite of the real Mr. Hayes in both looks and in his spectacularly violent actions—like ripping out the tongue of fellow inmate Rifki (a Turkih prisoner who rats on Billy's friend Max) with his own teeth; in real life this incident never happened. The downplaying of factual events, such as the relationship between Billy and the Swedish inmate, Erich, was apparently a conscious decision to make the sexual aspect of the story much more palpable and digestible for general audiences. To dismiss it completely would have been a violation of the material. To integrate it more fully might have undermined the film's hero in the eyes of the movie-going public. Even so, Hayes was quick to remark to the press: "Columbia [Pictures] is going to hate me, but I think it's the only cop-out in the movie." The manufactured scenes designed to bolster the action and the violence tend to undermine the film's credibility in the long term, but obviously added to the film's overall impact. The real Mr. Hayes had the option of taking his name off the film's credits if he didn't like it, but admitted to Rolling Stone, "I loved the movie. I don't want to hear about gratuitous violence. It was tokenism next to Sagmalcilar prison." But Hodenfield notes in his Rolling Stone review, Hayes' novel makes for "a fine yarn, natural for the movies," giving pause to wonder if any of the invented scenes were necessary at all to enhance the story.
Despite criticisms Midnight Express stands out as one of the most remarkable thrillers in the 1970s, and certainly one of the more memorable prison pictures ever filmed. At the time of its release in 1978, approximately 330 Americans were still sitting in foreign prisons on drug related charges. If the film had any social impact at all, it helped to wise up an entire society—one that had become, by the late 1970s, fairly comfortable with recreational drug use—about the consequences of drug involvement abroad.
—Donald R. Mott