Midnight Express (1978) dir. Alan Parker
Starring: Brad Davis, John Hurt, Randy Quaid
A highly recommended catalogue title pickup or rental is Sony's superb “Midnight Express” 30th Anniversary DVD. Alan Parker's 1978 film is great entertainment. Based on the real life story of William Hayes, a young American sentenced to 30 years in a Turkish Prison for attempting to smuggle out hash from the country, “Midnight Express” is a horror film of sorts, about the dangers of international travel and the hazards of being ignorant to the local laws, rules and customs.
The film opens with a brilliant sequence which shows Billy Hayes’ last moments of freedom. He’s in his hotel room wrapping the packets of hash in preparation for his journey. Billy and girlfriend are then at the airport about to go through immigration when his cold feet sets in. After a brief test of guts in the bathroom, he decides to go for it – it’s the worst decision of his life. He is caught red handed and taken immediately into custody leaving his girlfriend on the plane. Billy doesn’t know it yet, but a kilo of hash from a first offender which would likely mean a slap on the wrist at home, is a lifetime in prison in Turkey. The first sign of trouble is the moment after his capture when the immigration officers take turns taking photos with Billy like an angler catching that big fish. Billy’s about to enter a world he’d never imagined.
The prison he’s taken to makes Abu Graib look like Camp Cupcake – it’s Turkey, where Billy will soon lose the prime years of his life and suffer unimaginable physical and emotional stress. Billy does continue to fight the courts for freedom, but it’s to no avail, he seems to have paid the price for all the “Ugly Americans” who disrespect their laws and culture.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. In the prison he befriends several other Westerners including Jimmy (Randy Quaid) who knows the ins and outs of the Turkish prison underground. In a memorable scene Jimmy explains to Billy it’s a less punishable offence if you stab someone below the waist. Therefore people frequently get stabbed in the buttcheeks, in what’s referred to as ‘Turkish revenge’. John Hurt plays a drug-addicted lifer who’s spent so long behind bars he’s practically blended in with the grey decaying walls. As Billy explains in his voiceover, homosexuality is viewed as the ultimate sin, yet everybody does it and he soon becomes the rape victim of the sadistic prison officer.
In 1978 “Midnight Express” treaded on some controversial subject matter, specifically Billy’s homosexual relationship with one of the westerners – Erich. This relationship is handled with kid gloves by writer Oliver Stone and director Alan Parker. In a time when homosexuality still was a taboo subject Parker bravely shoots a romantic love scene between Billy and Erich in the shower with passionate confidence.
Billy, of course, starts to go stir crazy and suicidal. But when his long lost girlfriend dramatically visits him for the first time Billy is given the impetus to concentrate his efforts and escape the prison for good.
Director Alan Parker was one of the first of the new school of successful 80’s British filmmakers (Ridley and Tony Scott, Hugh Hudson, and Adrian Lyne) who transitioned from the commercial ad world. Each of these filmmakers had a unified style – fogged and textured sets, heavy backlight and long static lenses. And this modern style is very much on display in this film.
Giorgio Moroder's music, the first electronic score to win an Oscar, is simple but effective. The repetition of the theme may seem like overkill compared to the complexity of today’s style of scoring, but re-watching (or re-listening) you come to realize the effectiveness of the technique in creating an emotional investment to the story.
“Midnight Express” was Brad Davis’ career-defining role, but instead of basking in its success his real life became a tragic one. Despite the acclaim of the film and his Golden Globe-winning performance Davis was type-cast in homosexual roles for the rest of his career and never achieved the stardom he could have had. And though he was married for 15 years, he was a closeted bi-sexual, and sadly contracted AIDS and died in 1991.
The ending of the film is made even more emotional in the light of Davis’ short and closeted life. An effectively taut and tenseful sequence shows Billy’s eventual escape from the prison. And the final shot, the sight of Billy walking away from the prison framed with the long zoom lens is one of the more cathartic moments in cinema, and when you breathe it feels like your first exhale of the entire film. Enjoy.
"Midnight Express - 30th Anniversary" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.