Midnight Express (1978)
“A story of triumph.”
Director: Alan Parker
Cast: Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins
Synopsis: The true story of Billy Hayes, an American college student who is caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey and thrown into prison.
Whenever a convicted criminal publishes an account of his deeds the old cynic in me comes rushing to the surface. Hardly ever do we gain any insight into what an evil, unprincipled bastard the author was. All we get is a whitewash in which he or she attempts to paint himself in as good a light as possible, the product of a broken home or abusive parent who’s deserving of nothing less than our unconditional sympathy. They might be a bad guy, but you can bet your life they’ll be the nicest bad guy in the book. Billy Hayes, upon whose memoirs Alan Parker’s Oscar-winning Midnight Express is based, is no exception, and this movie, shamelessly promoted as ‘based on truth’, is little more than a work of fiction.
The movie joins Hayes (Brad Davis) as he straps two-kilo’s worth of hashish to his body prior to departing Turkey with his unsuspecting girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle). Unfortunately, he clearly hasn’t been keeping up with current affairs during his holiday, because if he had he would have known that security at the country’s airports had been tightened considerably in the wake of terrorist activity. His already overworked sweat glands go into overdrive when his shuttle bus to the awaiting plane is halted by armed guards who ferry all the passengers onto the runway for a quick search prior to boarding. Resigned to his fate, Hayes tells Susan to board the plane without him, and moments later he is being hauled off to the police cells for questioning.
There’s not much you can say in your defence when you’re caught with so many bundles of illicit drugs strapped to your body, and Hayes’ incarceration in a filthy, rat infested prison is a formality. His fat lawyer manages to keep his sentence down to four years, for which Hayes is supremely ungrateful, and his father’s attempts to buy his son some justice meet with no success. Slowly, Hayes adjusts to life in his new home, making friends with Erich (Norbert Weisser — The Thing, Schindler’s List), a Swedish drug smuggler whose soft focus sexual advance in the shower is gently rebuffed by Hayes in one of the movie’s unintentionally hilarious moments. He also falls in with Jimmy (Randy Quaid — The Last Picture Show, Breakout), a manic, perpetually angry American, and Max (John Hurt — White Mischief, 44 Inch Chest), a gentle drug addict who is the prison’s longest-serving European inmate. Somehow, Hayes manages to keep it together for the duration of his sentence, but just 53 days before his scheduled release he receives some devastating news…
It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for Billy Hayes, even in a whitewash job like Midnight Express. Screenwriter Oliver Stone cleverly avoids the fact that the real-life Hayes had already successfully smuggled drugs out of Turkey on three previous occasions by simply ignoring it and having Hayes’ declaration to US Department of State man Tex (Bo Hopkins — Monte Walsh, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing,) that this was his first attempt meet with no challenge or refutation. Hayes’ is hardly the most reliable voice in this situation, but his is the only one heard, and it’s his that many in the audience would take at face value. As for his outrage at the sentence he receives, you’ve got to ask exactly what he expected the repercussions to be if he was caught. Because, let’s face it, there’s no point bleating about how unfair a foreign country’s sentences are or how inhumane its treatment of their prisoners. Hayes knew the risk and the consequences, and like the idiot he was, he went ahead and committed the crime. Hardly a cause for sympathy in my book — especially when you consider he was travelling with his innocent girlfriend who would have been jailed as an accomplice if apprehended…
If the viewer can overlook all this and treat the story in Midnight Express as a work of pure fiction, it really is a superb, compelling drama, providing a fascinating insight into the strength prisoners can draw from one another in the face of a brutal and unfair regime, and the politics and power games played by those who see their stay in prison purely as an exercise in survival whatever the cost. Parker demonstrates a sure hand, ramping up the tension when required — Hayes’ mounting, impotent anxiety as the Turkish militia herd passengers from the shuttle bus is palpable — and admirably toning things down for the brief moments of humanity to be found in such inhumane conditions as the Turkish prison. But even Parker’s sterling efforts can’t overcome screenwriter Oliver Stone’s moments of typically heavy-handed treatment — in addition to that laughable moment in the shower there’s the infamous topless scene in the visitor’s room, and an act of cruelty to the prison cat which never looks like anything other than a cheap shot at emotional manipulation.
Midnight Express is one of those movies that comes at its audience like a prize-fighter aiming for a first-round knockout, and many are too busy trying to keep up with the flurry of blows to realise just how lightweight the onslaught really is. Hayes isn’t a hero. He isn’t even an anti-hero. He’s just a drug smuggler who got caught.
(Reviewed 1st March 2014)