‘Midnight Express’ tells the story of American Billy Hayes’s horrifying five year stint in a Turkish prison. Billy (Brad Davis), vacationing in Turkey with his girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle), decides (what an idiot!) to smuggle two kilos of hashish back into the States. He securely tapes the hash to his torso and gets through customs and security at the airport. But just when he’s about to board the airplane, he’s caught by the Turkish authorities. What gave him away? Perhaps it was the steady stream of sweat pouring down his face as he went through the airport security checks that gave him up. Anyhoo, Billy is taken into custody and strip searched while his belongings are thoroughly and destructively searched by the authorities. Since Billy doesn’t speak Turkish, he has no idea what the cops are saying about him or what may happen to him. Soon enough, he is tried in a Turkish court, represented by a wimp of an attorney (Franco Diogene), and given a four year sentence in prison. Now, while prisons are not the happiest places on earth, this place makes Sing-Sing look like Disneyland! Guards whip the soles of the inmates’ feet as punishment for infractions, inmates are regularly beaten and the living conditions are, to put it nicely, deplorable. With fifty-three days remaining of his sentence, a new governmental regime, unfortunately for Billy, takes control in Turkey and his sentence is overturned in favor of a LIFE sentence. Talk about luck! This sentence of course comes down after Billy berates the Turkish people while addressing the court, when he’s supposed-to-be-pleading-for-his-life! Again, foolish. After an inmate snitches on one of Billy’s allies in prison, Max (John Hurt), Billy loses it and bites off his tongue in a rather gruesome sequence. Thereafter, Billy is sent to the prison’s psycho ward where the conditions are even more execrable. Only after a visit from Susan (in a very effective scene) years after first entering the prison, does Billy regain the will to live and the guts to eventually try and escape the clutches of his Turkish captors and return home.
Well, the movie probably had a much greater impact back in 1978, when it was originally released. But having been exposed to much more violent and disturbing films throughout my movie-going lifetime, I was a bit biased going in and was left not-as-shocked as I would have been back in 1978. Of course, this makes perfect sense, but this is simply the situation in which I viewed the film. Nevertheless, the movie is certainly harrowing and Mr. Hayes’s story is without a doubt remarkable. There is no question in the viewer’s mind about the courage and strength it must’ve taken Mr. Hayes to endure such a harsh environment for so long, without much hope of ever seeing freedom again. Brad Davis’s portrayal of Billy Hayes absolutely conveys his fright and frustration at his situation, over which he has no control. I felt Billy’s pain and his hopelessness and genuinely felt sorry for him, even if he did, to a certain extent, ask for trouble by trying to smuggle hash in the first place.
I have always been a fan of Alan Parker and his movies. ‘Fame’ is a classic, ‘Angel Heart’ is one of my favorites, and ‘Midnight Express’ definitely has its place in movie history. His visuals are striking without sacrificing the substance of the narrative (although some scenes here, particularly the scenes of Billy and his two main cohorts in the prison (Hurt and Randy Quaid) trying to escape through underground tunnels beneath the prison, are shot so darkly that it is nearly impossible to see a picture, let alone any action). To place him in a chronological analogy, I would say he was to the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s what Tony Scott was to the mid-late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s with films like ‘Top Gun’ and ‘True Romance’. Although Parker has made his share of crap (‘The Life of David Gale’ anyone??), he remains an astounding visual storyteller who uses style and creativity to tells his stories.
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